Common Dialogue Mistakes

Avoid these common dialogue mistakes.

Stilted speech. Use words and phrases consistent with the character’s age, background, occupation, etc. Most young children do not use big, fancy words. A modern American teenager would probably call her father “Dad” and would use contractions and slang. (However, avoid slang terms that will “date” your manuscript—unless you’re writing a period piece—or words that people in only part of the country use.)

Overusing people’s names in conversation. (“Now, George, that’s not what I said.”)

Incorrect narrative/dialogue paragraphing. The actions and speech of a character should be in the same paragraph. Start a new paragraph to designate a change in speaker.

Dialect. (“Dat feller sed ah shoulda jes’ kep’ runnin’ ta kitch ep wit’ da rist o’ ’em.”) If it’s important to show a character’s accent, do so in narrative (“she said with a delightful Georgia drawl”) or by word choice and subtle speech patterns (“Why, you sweet little peach blossom, I do declare you get prettier every time I set my eyes on you” or “That bonnie lass is carrying a wee one in her belly, I’d stake my pot of gold on it.”)

Author exposition. Never use dialogue for the sole purpose of giving readers background information. Don’t have a character tell others something they already know. (“As you recall, Father died last year.”) Don’t have characters talk about things they wouldn’t normally discuss. (“As long as no one digs up the box I buried, the things I wrote about in my diary will remain secret.”) Don’t include details a character wouldn’t point out. (“After my boyfriend Michael Lapinski and I made out for twenty-five minutes in the backyard under the apple tree yesterday after school, he gave me a sixteen-inch-long gold chain with a tiny red heart on it.”) Don’t have a character say things that would be obvious to others. (If someone barges into a room after being beat up with a baseball bat, don’t have him say, “I’m bleeding from my forehead.” Instead, have him stumble in and ask for a bandage, or let another character react to the sight of him.)

Long, uninterrupted speeches. Don’t let one character talk for too long. Intersperse dialogue with narrative, interruptions, other characters speaking, etc.

All characters sounding alike. Each should have his or her own “voice,” including speech patterns, word choice, etc. Don’t have all of your characters sound just like you.

“Talking heads.” Avoid sections with line after line of characters talking to one another. Weave in setting, description, action, and the point-of-view character’s thoughts.

Small talk. Cut out throwaway lines such as “Hello,” “How are you?” “I’m fine,” etc. Meaningless chitchat destroys the momentum of the story. Instead of nondescript greetings such as “hi,” have a character say something that increases the tension, such as, “Thank God you’re home. We have to talk.”