Creative Writing Tip: Dialogue and Direct Address

dialogue time!

it’s dialogue time!

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!


25 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: Dialogue and Direct Address

  1. Thanks, interesting blog post! I definitely don’t overuse direct address. I know this because I have also written various screenplays, and when I started filming those I realised the audience only learns the characters’ names about halfway in. 🙂 In screenplays, it’s important to use direct address right at the beginning. It’s different in other types of fiction, although if you write first person it might be worth checking when the reader first learns the name of your protagonist. As I said, I am very sparse with direct address in my novels. But this is a conscious decision. My characters are mostly teenagers, and teenagers (boys especially) tend not to directly address people. Back in high school I actually did an experiment where I took note every time someone used my name (at school). After a month, I’d been addressed by name four times and only by teachers. Certain people, especially ‘older’ people, do use direct address a lot. Might have to do with upbringing. Us young folks don’t say ‘yes, sir’ anymore, we just say ‘yes’ (or ‘yeah’). Anyway, just wanted to mention that.

    • thanks! you’re very right about screenplays! That’s an important distinction! I would say in general you’re right about people not saying “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am” much in the younger generation, excepting the American South. It’s still an important part of being polite there.

  2. One of the greatest: “I’ll get you, my pretty, and you’re little dog too.”

  3. Love the last few posts, Victoria. How was that for direct address plus correct punctuation? 🙂 I’m keeping a little notebook where I jot down things to remember the next time a wave of editing slams into me. Your last few posts have had me running for my pen.

    • oh, I’m so glad you found them helpful, Francis!!! Loved that first sentence of your comment, by the way, hahaha! Thanks for dropping by as often as you do as striking up conversations!

  4. angel7090695001

    I don’t use direct address a lot but I don’t think I have used commas. I think I have for one or two but not all.

  5. I’m definitely an abuser of this! Like you said, it helps set the situation up and add gravity, and sometimes helps avoid the “he said, she said.” But this is a great reminder that too much can be overly dramatic. I’ve been bookmarking your articles for my big editing push in May!

  6. Great post, glad to know I’m not the only one who finds missing commas a little bit distracting.

    I think we’re at polar opposites, I favour dialogue tags over direct address. One thing I’ve noticed is that people don’t use names very often, even when talking in a group. People just sort of speak, eye contact and subtle gestures denote whom they are addressing (if not the group in its entirety). So, I tend to reserve direct address for when someone is being stern, or for clarity in groups.

    Do you think that direct address, whether or not it is realistic, is more important in fiction writing? There is nothing more frustrating than forgetting who is talking to who, and gesture beats could get confusing.

    • You make some fantastic points here, Allen.

      I think there are a number ways to avoid direct address in fiction if you prefer to avoid it. It tends to be my go-to method, but like you said, gestures and other methods can also help readers keep straight who’s in the conversation and who’s speaking to whom.

      Sometimes, having characters who speak differently, or have a phrase they like to use, is a good reminder of who’s speaking. If only one of your characters, for instance, says “Heavens!” a lot, if that phrase appears in a snippet of dialogue, your readers will know who’s talking without direct address.

      I think the best method is to employ lots of strategies like this and vary them all: gestures, direct address, catch phrases, dialogue attribution. That way nothing is overdone.

  7. Reblogged this on Time to Write and commented:
    Great post on using Direct Address properly in your dialogue

  8. There are many instances in “Sherlock Holmes” where a long conversation is held without direct addresses or “he said”/”she said” etc. Although it takes time to get the hang of it, it really does work out fine sometimes. What do you think about this?

    • I think it can definitely work! Especially if the people who are talking have very different manners of speech, so that it’s easier to follow who is saying what. Sherlock Holmes is a great example!

      • Yup. It is. Although I used to get irritated sometimes when I couldn’t follow the person who was speaking. So, I had to count back till the last address or the last “he said”/”she said” and then count back to the dialogue I was reading. So, I believe your style of “direct address” is much better and less utilized.

  9. Sorry, but I just couldn’t get past your first line! You do know, Rhett Butler was speaking to Scarlet O’Hara, there is no character named ‘Frankly’.

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  11. I think direct address is one of the instances where it really helps to read your dialogue out loud. In everyday casual conversations, direct addresses are used very, very rarely (only when I yell after someone to get his/her attention or something like that). Reading dialogue out loud definitely helps to cut this out.

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