Writing dialogue for a story seems pretty straightforward. After all, you’ve had a conversation before. You’re experienced in the fine art of speaking to another person. However, writing dialogue for your story is completely different than a face-to-face convo. In written dialogue, it should convey three things at once:
- Move the story forward
- Reveal an important truth about the characters
- Keep the pace
Writing dialogue can be intimidating, even for the experienced novelist, but the good news is that you’re here and we can discuss common dialogue mistakes and how to avoid them. Let’s get started.
Mistake #1: Trying to Cover Too Much Territory
One of the most egregious mistakes you can make in dialogue is to cover too much ground. The principal purpose of any dialogue scene should be to move your story forward. But if you give too much information in one scene (known affectionately as an information dump), you’ll confuse and overwhelm the reader. Not only that, information dumps also disrupt the pacing of your story.
If the characters discuss too much at one time, then what action will they take, and why should they take that action over another? For example, if the character learns that Johnny cheated and Mary Beth killed the cat, what’s the next step? Should she confront Johnny or wait for Mary Beth?
Instead of setting up this predicament for your character and the reader, why not reveal things a little bit at a time? Keep your dialogue focused on one topic at a time to make the next step obvious for your character.
Mistake #2: Telling and Not Showing
If writers had a motto, it would be “Show, don’t tell.”
It’s really, really easy to use dialogue to tell something about a character. For example, one character can say in his dialogue, “I’m sad.” However accurate it may be, it’s not descriptive.
Even though in the real world, someone may say “I’m sad,” it’s not the same when written. You have the added responsibility of conveying tone, mood, and body language. All of these things can be picked up in face-to-face conversations. In fact, scientists suggest that over 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. However, if you’re relying on dialogue alone to convey the sentiment, you’re cheating your reader out of a rich experience.
Think about it. The reader needs to know how something is said, what the character was doing when he or she said it and any other non-verbal cues that can reveal context. If you simply write, “I’m sad,” without describing the character’s downcast eyes as his voice drifts into the wind, then the reader can’t truly digest the moment.
When writing dialogue, be sure to set the scene and describe what the characters are doing as they’re talking. In fact, instead of using words, you can describe the other character’s physical response.
Mistake #3: Not Understanding How People Talk
This is a biggie, especially if you’re writing a novel that takes place in a different country or time period. Many writers have the tendency to write dialogue like they think it should sound. This often leads to cringe-worthy interactions where thees and thous are used incorrectly.
On the other end of the pendulum, some writers have a tendency to modernize historical dialogue, ignoring the era-specific ornate language for a plain, stripped down, bastardized version. That’s a no-no, too.
Whether you’re writing a period piece or a young adult series set 10 years in the past, remember to use specific language that’s accurate for that time period.
Mistake #4: Trying to Keep it Real
Yes, your dialogue should sound real. When reading your dialogue, the reader should be convinced that the characters actually sound like this when they talk.
It should sound like humans interacting. However, there are some parts of human speech that don’t belong in dialogue. For example, words like um, uh, ugh and ack don’t belong in written dialogue. Going back to showing, not telling, there are many ways you can describe hesitation or emotion without inserting crutch words in your dialogue.
Also, remember that your dialogue shouldn’t sound too real. You can skip the small talk, scrub away the filler and get right to the core of the conversation.
Mistake #5: Getting Too Creative With Your Dialogue Tags
I get it. Using “he said” and “she said” is boring. However, dialogue tags are meant to be functional and not descriptive.
When you use tags like, “he bellowed out” or “she hummed softly,” you actually distract the reader. Distraction breaks the pace of the dialogue. When you insert a descriptive tag instead of a functional one, the reader has to pause and think about what you meant.
Descriptive tags compete with the content of your dialogue. While you can and should describe the scene and the characters’ reactions, you shouldn’t use dialogue tags to do that. Instead of plugging in an adjective or adverb, you can set the scene with a simple sentence that follows the dialogue.
“Why is this broken?” Sam tossed the frame across the room with a heavy grunt.
Without looking up from her novel, Ann said, “You know why.”
Also, don’t feel the need to add dialogue tags every time a character speaks. You can break up the dialogue with descriptions of the character to update the reader on the scene. If there are only two characters in a scene, it’s easy for the reader to keep track.
Mistake #6: Allowing the Characters to Sound Alike
Speech is a part of characterization, and it’s crucial to differentiate your characters when you’re using dialogue.
In the world of your novel, no character should sound like the other. Instead of relying completely on dialogue tags, you can also lean on different speech patterns, and words or phrases that the character may use often.
When crafting your character bible, consider assigning a unique speech pattern to each of your main characters. Describe the cadence of their speech, if they use big or small words, and if they’re abrupt or coy.
Closely related to this mistake is another no-no: Forcing your characters to sound like you. We have a tendency to write dialogue like we think instead of write in the way that each character would think and speak.
Be mindful that none of your characters sound alike or sound like you. You may be thinking, “Can’t I have at least one character who sounds like me?” This is dangerous especially if you plan to write more than one novel. You don’t want to have that one recurring character who sounds like another character from your previous novel (and who actually sounds like you).
Mistake #7: Not Inserting Action
As we’ve discussed before, it’s crucial to set the scene. Otherwise, you’ll have a lot of talk but the reader will be blind. He or she won’t be able to see what’s happening in the scene. The characters might as well be floating in space, unless you ground them in the scene.
But, don’t get too caught up in describing the setting. You should also describe the characters’ action. How do they interact with each other? Are they sitting or standing in the scene? Where is each character in relation to the other?
While you may not describe every single detail to your reader, it’s important that you have a clear visual of character placement and reaction in your own mind. This way, you’ll be able to clearly convey character movement, action and interaction with each other and the setting.
Mistake #8: Your Dialogue Doesn’t Have a Purpose
Your dialogue isn’t just filler. In fact, no word should be novel should be wasted. But, when it comes to dialogue, every interaction should be about pushing the story forward.
Whether that’s revealing something important about the characters or forcing them towards a decision that will reveal your story.
To be sure that your dialogue has a purpose, ask yourself these questions:
- What’s the point of these characters talking?
- How does this scene move my story forward?
- Does this scene increase the tension in my story?
- Is something revealed about the characters in this scene?
Before you go, check out these related posts:
- Use These 18 Apps to Improve Your Writing
- How to Write Humor
- Are Your Characters Under-Developed? Here’s a Helpful Guide to Find Out
- How to Find Your Writer’s Voice