Talk, talk, talk, with Jen Wylie

I am usually a very sun shiny person, however since I’ve gone into super-editing-mode some things have started to drive me nuts. Today’s rant: Character names IN dialogue. Dialogue is one of the most important parts of a story. It needs to be done well and believably!

A crude example:

Sally walked into the kitchen. “Hi, mom.”
“Good morning, Sally!”
“Did you sleep well, mom?”
“You know, Sally, I actually did!”
Sally smiled. “That’s awesome, mom!”

A bit overdone, but are you getting the picture? Pay attention to the next time you have a conversation with anyone, in person or on the phone. Names and even endearments are RARELY used. When they are, it is often at the beginning of a conversation or sparsely within it. In real life names are also used to get a person’s attention, sometimes to single out one within a group. Names are also used in admonishment, such as, “Oh John, you so did not just say that!”

Writers often have a tendency to overuse names in dialogue, perhaps partly to indicate who is speaking to whom. However this is often unnecessary when a conversation is between only two characters. Within a scene with a number of people this can be better done using tags and simple writing; Sally turned to her mom, mom swatted dad on the shoulder, John glared over at dad, etc.

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Please pay attention in real life and make your dialogue as believable as possible, otherwise I’ll be forced to throw rainbows at you. 😛

Jen Wylie is the author of Jump, an Echelon Press Short Story with more work coming soon. Visit her website or her blog for more information.


8 responses to “Talk, talk, talk, with Jen Wylie

  1. Taylor has a marvelous way with names dialogue and characterization without shortchanging the Ive got review copies of the first 2 books in this series..thinking I should read them sometime soon I fell in love with the concept of a walled-in Seattle full of such dangers like the deadly Blight gas rotters living dead and various communities who found a way to live in the unlivable city.

  2. Good advice, Jen. On the other hand, I hate having to look back or count lines to figure out who’s speaking. An occasional action or gesture on the part of the speaker can make it clear without resorting to name-calling.

  3. I agree 100%.
    I knew someone once who used your name every other sentence she said to you. It was so odd to hear.

  4. I enjoy your practical advice. Here’s an award for you:


  5. You’re right: People DON’T use names much during a conversation. It drive me NUTS when my husband is on the phone, and I have to try to guess who’s on the other end by my husband’s side of the conversation. “Can’t be Bob, because Bob already knows what Charlie just said. Can’t be Dolores, because he doesn’t laugh that particular way when he talks to her….” Using a person’s name during a conversation between two people is generally A Bad Sign. “Sara, I would understand bad grades if you weren’t capable of better….” Or it can be a way to draw the attention of the other person, if you crave it and aren’t sure you have it.

    Great post! Now you’ve got me thinking about ways to use names and no-names in dialog!

  6. You can add character taglines to this. “Hi,” Tim said. “Hello,” Bill said. “What are you doing?” Tim said. “Nothing,” Bill said. If there are only two people speaking, usually you can tell who saynig what at a given time. Also watch titles. You do not need to say Captain Smith said…something everything Smith says. You know Smith is a Captain the first time around.

  7. Thanks so much for having me today Karen!

  8. Great advice Karen. I read at least three books a month and have noticed the great writers use your technique. I read an interview with Robin Cook and he said when asked how he writes dialogue. I try to write dialogue like it was a screenplay. That makes it easier to leave out the names in my mind at least.
    John. How was the raw oysters?
    Mary. Chewy but if swallowed whole amazing.
    Bad example but could be a useful tool. Of course the writer would go back and remove the names later or place them in the dialogue if leaving them out would confuse the reader.

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