SOME DIALOG TIPS: WE KNOW WHO HE’S TALKING TO

I teach a three-hour, one-day seminar called Living Dialog, and that class, itself inspired by a blog post, has inspired more than one more, including this one.

Here’s something that I see from less experienced authors way too often, and from experienced authors basically never. Please heed this advice:

 

Do not end a line of dialog with the name of the person that character is speaking to, unless you specifically want the character who’s speaking to sound like a used car salesman.

 

Ending a sentence with the name of the person you’re speaking to is a common, and hopelessly overdone mnemonic device used by bad salesmen who are trying to build a rapport with you, and trying to remember your name. This is meant to give you the idea that this guy you just met knows you, is speaking directly to you, cares about you, and isn’t just trying to make a quick buck off you.

This reminds me of a famous science fiction line: “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.”

Notice that wasn’t: “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded, Luke.”

Sometimes I wonder why I keep seeing this is fiction. Is it that the author was given that basic sales training and doesn’t know when and why to turn it off? If so, please learn to turn it off, and frankly, keep it turned off forever.

Maybe the author is worried that unless he or she identifies the character being spoken to the reader won’t be able to figure it out? The good news there is that probably nine times out of ten it’s perfectly clear in context who is being spoken to, so you can change:

“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded, Luke,” Obi-Wan said.

to

“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded,” Obi-Wan said.

Voila! One word chopped off the end and you’re in business. We get it.

If there is some confusion, you should probably rethink the structure of the scene, but the easy solution is just to shift that to description, so our Star Wars example would read:

“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded,” Obi-Wan said to Luke.

or maybe:

Obi-Wan turned to Luke and said, “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.”

This is one example that sits in the broader category: Listen to how real people talk. Even though there are some real people who talk like this, they’re doing it on purpose, or for all intents and purposes have been hypnotized into doing it, and the rest of us wish they’d stop. Of course, if you’re writing a story that includes an irritating used car salesman, make sure that character does do this, just none of the other, non-used car salesman characters.

Unless you’re writing a story set in a world inhabited only by used car salesmen, in which case I probably won’t be reading that anyway, so have at it!

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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One Response to SOME DIALOG TIPS: WE KNOW WHO HE’S TALKING TO

  1. E S Bedigian says:

    Oh dang!
    It’s back to the dialogue board for me. Got some repairs to do…
    Many thanks.

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