Five Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Dialogue
By Rose Atkinson-Carter
Dialogue is a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal. Effective dialogue can greatly enhance a story, reveal a character’s motivations, and move the plot forward. However, written dialogue isn’t quite the same as its spoken counterpart and can thus be tricky for many.
Here are some common dialogue writing mistakes that you can avoid:
1. Stepping out of character
Every fictional character has their unique quirks and mannerisms—this could be their vocabulary (e.g., regional slang or occupation-specific jargon), their behavior, or even their tone of voice. A character's unique helps readers connect with them. While behaving "out of character" is something that does happen, it’s really jarring for a character to start speaking like a totally different person. Take Hermoine Granger, the unapologetic know-it-all in Harry Potter—she might be an organized person, but she’ll sometimes be impulsive. That’s understandable. What would make very little sense is if she suddenly started swearing at everyone in Hogwarts or making ten grammatical mistakes in each sentence.
Remember that every person (and every character) has their own idiolect, their unique voice—like a linguistic fingerprint. Idiolects are a helpful concept when writing dialogue, because they also help you mark when something out of the ordinary takes place. If Hermione did start to speak out of character under suspicious circumstances, it’d help the reader figure out that she was under a spell. With that in mind, think carefully about your characters’ unique voices and make sure that any departures from their usual way of speaking are conscious decisions that won’t unnecessarily confuse your reader.
2. Including too many rhetorical flourishes
The way we speak in real life doesn’t actually make for great dialogue on the page. Because our natural way of talking consists of a lot of ums, you-knows, and mid-sentence subject changes, many writers assume that the “right” way to write authentic dialogue is to reflect these tendencies.
This makes for commendable loyalty to realism, but dialogue needs to be less messy than it is in real life. Basically, you want your dialogue to sound real but not actually mimic reality. Of course, including an occasional “um” to make your dialogue sound natural doesn’t hurt, but definitely don’t do it in every sentence in your effort to imitate real speech. If you struggle to find the right balance, try listening to some audiobooks and paying close attention to how other authors write dialogue. Listening to it can help even more.
3. Overburdening dialogue with too much exposition
Sometimes, you may want to give crucial information to your reader, such as an element of the backstory, and dialogue may seem like a convenient way to do it. This is difficult to pull off with authenticity.
Imagine the following conversation:
“Tracy, my sister! How long has it been since I last saw you when our parents were divorcing?”
“It’s been thirteen years since we went off to separate countries and totally lost contact.”
This comes off as awkward and forced, because nobody talks like that—two siblings would just say “how long has it been?” without specifying all the surrounding information. If you need to fill readers in on a snippet of narrative context, a quick line of exposition here and there can work, but a dump of information will be noticeable and unnatural—especially when it lands in dialogue. Whenever possible, reveal narrative context in small bursts, and blend it in with the rest of the prose. Convey it through your character’s thoughts and actions rather than resorting to explanation and summary. It’s the same practice as the old “show, don’t tell” principle.
4. Getting too excited with alternatives to “said”
A sign of well-written dialogue is when you’re reading it without making any active effort to understand who’s speaking or what their mood is like. That’s where the simplicity of "said" comes in. It helps dialogue flow. Readers automatically recognize the shape and meaning of "said" and don’t have to actively put effort into figuring it out. Other dialogue tags like “screamed” or “retorted” draw attention to themselves, sometimes doing the talking instead of letting the character do it.
Overly elaborate alternatives to “said” can also result in purple prose. Consider the two lines below:
“I simply can’t stand this anymore,” vociferated Adam.
“I simply can’t stand this anymore,” said Adam.
What seems more natural? While writing, it’s better to stick to “said” as much as possible and let the character’s emotions show through their choice of words or actions.
5. Letting characters go on for too long
As we saw above, good dialogue is meant to flow and keep the reader engaged. Needlessly long paragraphs of speech are likely to bore the reader and result in them skipping through your dialogue. Unimportant conversation such as small talk about the weather (unless that’s crucial to your plot) and other such inconsequential details can be spared in fiction writing. Short and sweet is usually best. If you can trim a phrase or statement without affecting the overall meaning, then trim away!
Essentially, what you should be aiming for when self-editing is to keep your dialogue dynamic, brief, and purposeful. If a character is going to go on a tangent and discuss a random topic at length, make sure it serves a bigger purpose than just “realistic dialogue”—for example, that tangential speech could contain a clue in a mystery novel or help the reader understand a character’s motivations. If this is something you’re having trouble with, a professional editor will be just what you need, since dialogue is a common problem in fiction writing.
Once you get the hang of it, dialogue writing can become quite an enjoyable and stimulating process. The key is to observe and understand real-life dialogue, and then get rid of the extra fluff. We hope these dialogue tips come in handy and help you as you set out to write your next story!
Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, advising authors on all things publishing, from finding a literary agent and crafting a successful query letter to understanding ISBNs and book copyrights. She has previously written for Shortcuts for Writers, Gorham Printing, and more. She lives in London.