Today, after a really fun, really productive two-day conversation on “it,” “just,” “only,” and “simply,” I wanted to move on to something somewhat similar but also fiction/dialogue-centric: direct address. You know, those moments when a character addresses someone else by name. Some famous (mis)examples:
- “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” -Rhett Butler, “Gone with the Wind.”
- “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” -Samwise Gamgee, “The Lord of the Rings.”
- “Luke, I am your father.” -a misquoted Darth Vader. (He only says “I am your father.”)
- “Play it again, Sam.” -misquoted from “Casablanca.” Ilsa says, “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.'” Later, Rick says, “Play it again.”)
First of all, a quick grammar reminder: direct addresses are always set up by commas, whether they come in the middle (examples 1 and 2), at the beginning (example 3), or at the end (example 4). I’ve read a lot of fiction published by indie authors who did not adhere to this rule, and whenever that happens, I get very distracted. Also, annoyed.
Really, though, the punctuation is the easy part. It’s not a difficult rule to follow or to understand. What gets me when I sit down to edit my own fiction is that I have so much direct address in my dialogue I want to pull my hair out.
I edit, and I edit. And after four passes through a draft, I still find instances of direct address I need to change because they follow too closely upon each other. They’re too clumped together, and that’s as distracting as improper punctuation.
I’ve even, on multiple occasions, found multiple examples of direct address in one segment of dialogue that I’ve written. Ugh!!!
Not wrong, just overpowering if overdone.
Like everything we’ve been talking about this week–using “it” without an antecedent, or using “just,” “only,” and “simply,”–the issue isn’t that direct address is wrong. It isn’t wrong or ungrammatical (providing you use your commas the right way.)
In fact, direct address can be the simplest and most logical way to let your readers know who a character is talking to when there are multiple people present.
“Jane, bolt the door. Mike, grab the shotgun. I’ll find the shells to load it. The zombie apocalypse is upon us!”
My problem is that, for some reason, I’ve become a direct address addict.
- I feel that it adds tension and gravity. It can emphasize that the character talking is serious, or worried, or otherwise concerned about something, or even angry. (After all, you know as a kid you were in trouble when pulled out not only the first name, but the middle one too.)
- I love having adorable couples in my novels who have nicknames for each other that no one else uses. It’s kind of a problem.
- I don’t like to overdo dialogue attribution (he said, she said, etc), so I use direct address from time to time to avoid dialogue attribution while helping readers keep track of who’s talking when.
The problem with overdoing direct address is that your dialogue starts to feel stilted. It doesn’t flow. It feels forced and dry. Fake. And that’s definitely not something you want.
So, today’s takeaway: If you’re like me and you overuse direct address in your drafts, make sure it’s something you pay attention to in your edits. I try to take out every mention of direct address that I feel I can do without. I never remove enough, but it’s something!