20 Dialog Mistakes, and What to Do Instead
Dialog is a core part of telling any story. Even if you write nonfiction, including some in illustrative examples can make your book sing. But there’s good dialog and bad dialog…and every reader can tell the difference.
Even though many writers can’t, especially when it comes to their own writing.
Here is our challenge for you. This month, take out your work in progress. Each day, check it for one of these 20 dialog mistakes. By the end of the month, you’ll have completed a dialog clinic to improve the power of all your characters’ speech.
1. Dialog That’s Too On the Nose
“Hello. How are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“Good. What do you know about John and Mary?”
The above dialog is grammatically correct, information rich, and scans well on the page. The problem is, nobody ever talks like that. Dialog that conforms to the rules of formal grammar feels wrong to the reader, because we don’t hear people talk that way. It ruins verisimilitude and gets in the way of reader immersion.
Avoid this by listening to how people talk and writing an approximation of this, and by reading your dialog out loud to see if it feels natural in your mouth.
Exceptions include people delivering news on television or making a public speech. That dialog tends to conform closely to grammar, and readers expect that to be true.
2. Dialog That’s Too Much Like We Actually Talk
“Hey, uh, what’s up?”
“Nothing much, uh…”
“Hey…so, anyway…I wanted to, to, uh, talk to you, you know, about…”
It was probably painful to read the above dialog. Even though it’s exactly how most people talk in an informal setting, it’s frustrating to go through because so many words go by without anything important happening. We said just above that you should write more like people actually talk, but you can take it too far. Truth is, most of us fill our speech with hesitations, misfired, and other noise that goes badly on the page.
Avoid this by writing the way we all wish we talked, with the right informal language at the right time but still succinctly, clearly, and cleverly.
Exceptions include when you want to establish a character as impaired, either as a permanent disability or temporarily due to injury or substances. A person on the page talking like we do in real life seems to be operating below specs.
3. Dialog Without the Right Punctuation
“What’s your name.
“John. And you’re Mary”?
“Yes. We need to talk.”
An editor, agent, or reader will look at the above and cringe. If they cringe enough times, they’ll abandon your book entirely. Follow the punctuation rules of dialog to help your reader know what’s being said and by whom.
Avoid this by looking up the basic dialog conventions for your country, printing out a copy, and keeping it nearby. Consult it until this is second nature.
Exceptions for this do not exist.
4. Dialog With No Purpose
Dialog that rambles may feel natural, like “something the character would do”, but every line a reader goes through that doesn’t move the story forward risks losing their attention. If you lose their attention, it can be very hard to get it back.
Make sure all of your dialog serves not just one purpose, but two. It must move the story forward in some way, and ideally reveal something else about a character, the world, or the conflict of the story. Random dialog that fills the page is useless at best, frustrating at worst.
Avoid this by reviewing your dialog after writing, and eliminating or altering anything that doesn’t fulfill at least two purposes.
Exceptions include dialog you use as a pacing element. This isn’t really an exception, because the purpose of that dialog is pacing. It makes the reader wait a beat before experiencing the next thing.
5. Dialog With Accidental Tom Swifties
“I dropped my toothpaste,” Tom said, crestfallen.
“I lost my hat!” Tom said, off the top of his head.
Tom Swifties are a joke or party game where you make a pun by adding a dialog tag to a quote, like in the examples above. For punsters, they’re great fun. For writers, they’re poison. They’re named after the old Tom Swift novels, which provide particularly unintentional and egregious examples of the genre. When your writing sounds like a joke developed to make fun of bad writing, you know you’re on the wrong path.
Avoid this by sticking with simple dialog attributions. “Said” works just great almost all the time. It’s invisible to most readers.
Exceptions include if you’re making the Tom Swifty joke intentionally, while breaking the fourth wall. Even then, do it very sparingly.
6. Dialog With Unclear Attribution
“Hey, John and Mary! Get over here!”
“I’ll be a minute!”
Pop quiz. In the above dialog, is Mary or John coming right away? That’s the problem with unclear attribution. If the reader doesn’t know who’s saying what, they can’t stay oriented with your story. Confusion becomes frustration very quickly, and frustration can easily become abandoning your book for something easier.
Avoid this by tracking through your attributions and dialog tags, and asking a beta reader to do the same. If you both know for sure who’s speaking, other readers probably will.
Exceptions include scenes of chaos and confusion in your book, where sparing confusion about dialog attribution can add to the power of the action.
7. Dialog With Confusing Accents
“I goldurn sez to ‘im tha if’n they wan’t gonna take ‘em from usn’s dey shouldautta go off tern the hawse right quickright.”
Using accents, odd word choice, and different pronunciations is a quick and colorful way to establish a character as unique on the page…but it can go too far. Always remember: asking a reader to do extra work to enjoy your story results in a lost reader more often than it gives a reader a better experience. Reading the sentence above made you think and hesitate, to slow down. Most readers don’t want that.
Avoid this by using a few key pieces of accent or pronunciation in early sentences spoken by a character, then writing normally. Most readers will automatically fill it in themselves for the rest of the book.
Exceptions include characters who you want to intentionally make confusing or frustrating, or to call out as a stranger in a strange land.
8. Dialog That Repeats Exposition
John’s hat fell off his head. “Darnit, I dropped my hat!” he said.
It’s usually a mistake to say anything twice in a book, lest you lose reader interest by being boring and repetitive. Many authors make this mistake by having a character repeat in dialog what recently happened on the page.
Avoid this by either showing the action, then making dialog a response to that action, or by not describing the action anywhere but in the dialog.
Exceptions include especially important pieces of story, especially in a mystery. In those cases, you can repeat the key element, but try not to do so on the same page.
9. Dialog Without Differentiation
“I ate the pie. I loved it,” said Mary.
“I loved eating that pie,” said John.
No two people you know in real life talk the same way. No two people in your book should, either. If everybody’s dialog feels the same, the characters will also feel very similar. This makes for a boring book, while simultaneously missing one of the best an easiest opportunities to make your characters shine on the page.
Avoid this by deciding in advance how each of your characters talk. Do they have accents? Do they use metaphors related to their interests? Do they always start a sentence with the same word? Just one or two unique points for each will get you started.
Exceptions include characters you want to make similar on purpose, such as identical twins, faceless minions, or a situation you want to make extra creepy.
10. Dialog That’s Really Just You
There is an unconscious temptation when we write to insert ourselves into our characters, to live a kind of wish fulfillment through their deeds and their words. If your dialog sounds a lot like you talking, get in there and mix it up. Your book will be better for it. While you’re at it, keep an eye out for characters using a different voice, but using that different voice to express your political, religious, or philosophical opinions. That’s usually also a mistake.
Avoid this by aksing a beta reader you trust how much the dialog sounds like you talking. If they say it does, make some changes.
Exceptions to this only exist in memoir and autobiography.
11. Dialog You Haven’t Read Out Loud
The best way to make your dialog shine (and really the best way to make your writing shine) is to read it out loud to yourself, and preferably to somebody else) at least once. This will reveal places where the pacing sags, where the constructions don’t feel natural, and where it tapers off into boring verbal cul-de-sacs.
Avoid this by…um…always reading your stuff out loud.
Exceptions to this rule do not exist. If you can’t read it out loud yourself, have a trusted friend read it to you. That’s almost as good.
12. Dialog With Small Talk
“So, how are the kids?”
“They’re great! John’s in grad school, and Mary just got out of the Army with a job in the private sector. Anyway, about that murder…”
Small talk is such a part of normal conversation that interactions feel abrupt and rude without a little of it, but it has very little place on the written page. Remember what we said earlier about dialog without a purpose? Most of the time, small talk fulfills no real narrative purpose. It’s job in real life is as a warmup, a form of verbal foreplay. You’re better off just getting to the point.
Avoid this by cutting all small talk out of your dialog. Sometimes, this is easier to do in editing than while you’re writing your first draft.
Exceptions include scenes where the small talk is happening while other important action happens. Look to the opening scene of Inglorius Basturds for a brilliant example of this on the screen.
13. The “Maid and Butler” dialog
Back in the day, murder mysteries often began with the maid and butler of a stately manor discussing the business of the nobles living there. With a page or two of conversation, they performed the exposition needed to orient the reader in the story. After that, the tale would progress normally.
It was a pretty good technique, but got used so often it’s now a cliche. Readers will be annoyed by it, especially if the characters in question fill no other meaningful role in the story.
Avoid this by weaving exposition into and outside of dialog, and by having all people who speak play a larger, important role in your book.
14. Dialog That Names Names (Too Often)
“Hey, Mary!” John said.
“Yes, John?” said Mary.
John said, “Have you seen my cat, Mary?”
“Yes, John. She was delicious,” Mary said.
On one hand, this is bad. It’s repetitive, and in its repetition both frustrating and ironically confusing. Most of the time, a conversation between two people only needs to tag the speaker once, when they’re introduced. The natural speaking order of dialog will keep track from then on. With multiple speakers, you need to tag dialog more often, but use a combination of methods to avoid repetition.
Avoid this by going back through dialog and removing unnecessary names.
Exceptions to this rule don’t exist…but a few too many names is better than not enough.
15. Dialog Where Characters Say What They Mean
“Mary, I’m really angry with you for eating my cat,” John said.
“I understand that, but I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t gone on that date with Sharon.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize that hurt your feelings. I’m so sorry.”
This is the emotional version of the first mistake in that it’s not natural to the way people communicate. People very rarely say exactly what they mean in conversation. Instead, we tend to hide our motivations, fears, and desires beneath multiple layers of words. We’re so used to this, as humans, that we automatically cut through most of them when we talk with people, and overly open communication tends to weird us out.
Avoid this by thinking about how a character with the motivations and fears of the speaker would communicate something indirectly, like you do with people in your life.
Exceptions include characters who are set up as unusually straight shooters as part of their basic makeup, or conversations where people are intentionally violating this conversational taboo.
16. Dialog Where Exposition Belongs
“I went to the store, then to the parking garage, where I found the skeleton of a cat,” the officer said. “Then I came straight here.”
It’s good to weave some exposition into dialog, but not always. For long stretches of action, it’s usually better to make it plain text. Dialog is less efficient than exposition, and efficiency is vital in telling a story your readers will stick with page after page.
Avoid this by reconsidering any exposition via dialog that lasts more than a single line, and eliminating any dialog that consists entirely of exposition.
Exceptions include characters, scenes, or lines where the reader expects the speaker to tell a story. Police interrogations are a popular and effective example of this.
17. Dialog in a Vacuum
Reread the examples in this article. Most of them exist in a vacuum, with no information given except for who’s speaking and what they have to say. That works in this case because the dialog is the entire point of the examples. Giving the conversations context distracts the reader from the main point.
In your book, this will almost never be appropriate. Nobody just stands in a dark or featureless room and talks. Conversations happen in situations, and the speakers move around each other and the other things in the room. Describing what happens around dialog creates pacing, and makes the scene fully realized on the page.
Avoid this by picturing the context of dialog, and giving enough information between lines of speech to help the reader do so as well.
Exceptions include times when the dialog is absolutely key. Sometimes in real life, somebody says something so important, stirring, or beautiful that the rest of the world fades into the background. If that’s happening in your story, it can happen on the page.
18. Dialog That’s Too Stereotypical
We won’t provide an example here, and we won’t spend much time on it. Never, ever, ever replicate stereotypes in your dialog. It’s just as bad as describing a stereotype in exposition. It’s lazy, and often a little bit racist.
Avoid this by making your characters living, breathing being with unique qualities.
Exceptions don’t exist to this. However, you can have dialog for archetypes like “evil banker”, “bored guard”, or “annoying therapist” that matches expectations for characters who exist briefly, and only for their archetype’s role.
19. Dialog Where Action Belongs
“OW! Stop hitting me!” John yelled.
Remember earlier where we said you shouldn’t write dialog where exposition does the job better? The same is true for action. Action scenes need to be tight, spare, written in as few words as you can. Dialog can’t do that job, so write the action out normally.
Avoid this by reviewing action scenes and tightening them up. While you’re tightening, check any dialog in there.
Exceptions don’t exist for this, but you can have tight dialog responses to action woven into the action scene.
20. Dialog That Rhymes
“If you want to pass by me, answer me these riddles three!”
Unless you’re writing nursery stories, never, ever, ever have dialog rhyme. It’s a lazy writing technique that should have been abandoned a long time ago. Just don’t.
Avoid this by…um…reading your dialog and seeing if it rhymes, then changing it if it does.
Exceptions include certain genres, like picture books and faerie tales. Even then, it’s usually best used occasionally or skipped.