Don’t Overuse Names in Dialogue

Don’t Overuse Names in DialogueOne of the biggest challenges for any writer is creating realistic dialogue. It’s surprisingly difficult to recreate the patterns and nuances of human conversation. If you can write ace dialogue, you’ll have agents, editors, and readers all clambering at your door.

You can start by making sure you’re not falling into one of the most common—and, in my personal opinion, one of the most annoying—dialogue pitfalls: the overuse of direct address.

What Is Direct Address?

Direct address occurs whenever one character calls another character by name. As in:

“Hey, John, could you give me that wrench?”

Direct address accomplishes several things, most notably identifying the character being spoken to and applying a certain amount of emphasis to whatever information follows.

Used in moderation, both these accomplishments are admirable and necessary tricks of the trade. However, used to excess, they can become both ridiculous and frustrating (as demonstrated in a fantasy I once read that had the characters calling each other by name in practically every line of dialogue).

When Should You Use Direct Address in Dialogue?

How often do we call each other by name in real life?

Pay attention to direct address in your own conversation, and you’ll be surprised how little you actually call people by name.

As a general rule, direct address is used only:

1. At the beginning of a conversation.

2. When trying to get someone’s attention.

3. When trying to emphasize a point.

Emphasis, in all its forms, must be treated with caution, since it’s far too easy to neutralize its effect through overuse. Every time one of your characters calls another by name, stop and reevaluate the line of dialogue. Would it be just as strong—or or perhaps even stronger—without the occurrence of direct address?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Does it annoy you when characters use direct address too often in dialogue? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. An important precaution to take

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is admittedly one of my pet peeves. Makes me excessively happy when writers don’t abuse names in dialogue!

  2. It’s a common anime drinking game to take a sip every time one character calls another by name.

    “Parn!”

    “Deed!”

    “Eto!”

    “Parrrnnn!”

  3. The only people in real life who constantly use direct address to distraction are sports announcers and newscasters.

    If you are writing YA or MG the character’s mom or dad will use direct address when the kid is in especially deep trouble. A good reason to give that kid a middle name.

  4. Robert Easterbrook says

    I have never put a character’s name in the quote marks; always outside the quotes. Otherwise I use narration, e.g. John flipped pages. Otherwise it sounds odd to me, “John flipping pages …” (Unless its irony) And – lucky me, perhaps – I can’t recall the last time I read a novel where the author used a characters name inside the quotes. I have used a nominal, e.g. “The perpetrator …” “The suspect …” “The captain …” However, if you imply – because you don’t state it – that using a character’s name outside the quotes can be ‘annoying’, I would say I haven’t noticed it – so far. I tend to use both. By that I mean I use character names whenever a character speaks e.g. Clynne said, Clare said, when there are more than two characters in a conversation. When there’s several characters I find it essential to keep track of who says what. Writers can lose me when they have many exchanges in quotes and never say who says what. That to me is annoying, because I have to stop reading and figure out who said what. I tend to use character names less (unless there’s a damn good reason) when there are only two characters in the conversation. For example, whichever character speaks first. John said something, then Mary answered. But whenever its clear that John is speaking I use he said (or no name). And vis-a-vis when it’s clear Mary is speaking I use she said. However, I find things can get messy when two characters of the same gender are speaking. A string of exchanges between same-gender characters without their names will turn me off. So I find, depending on the scene, and the POV, I’ll use a mix of direct address or the pronouns he, she, they, them, her, him, it, etc (or some nominal, e.g. the man in the fedora, the pencil moustache, the corporate executive, the officer with the crooked nose). Hope that makes sense. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What I’m talking about here applies only to direct address–when one character calls another character by name in dialogue.

  5. Great points! There might be another valid use for direct address: when there are multiple characters in a scene, and the speaker needs to be clear about whom they are addressing. (That might fall under the “get someone’s attention” category).

    Also, I ‘ve noticed that direct address can be used more often in other cultures. For example, my wife’s family is from Mexico. When she converses with her aunt or her parents, they use each other’s names or titles about every other sentence.

  6. Great blog! Fortunately this is one of the things I do get right 🙂 You are absolutely correct. Name after name is frustrating to the reader. I hate the overuse of dialogue tags too. They have the same effect.

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