Say What?: 5 Tips for Avoiding Common Dialogue Mistakes

The key to writing good dialogue is to be as realistic as possible without boring your reader. You want your characters to sound convincing, but you don’t need to include the minutiae of everyday speech—the how’s the family exchanges that happen when you run into an acquaintance in the grocery store, for instance. On the other hand, overly dramatic or expository dialogue is so far from the reality of how people speak that it will distract readers from your story.

Here are a few guidelines to help you avoid common impediments to writing believable dialogue.

1. Don’t monologue. 

Some moments call for a grand speech. Most of them do not. Resist the urge to have your characters launch into a long, rambling explanation of their backgrounds or motivations. No one does this in real life, unless they’re speaking to a therapist or dictating to the ghostwriter undertaking their autobiography. If you find yourself having to explain things through dialogue, one of three things might have gone wrong:

a.) You haven’t developed your characters well enough through their actions;

b.) You haven’t paced the plot so that important information is revealed gradually throughout, or;

c.) You’ve underestimated your readers’ ability to put the pieces together.

None of these is good! Fix the underlying problem, and you’ll probably realize you never needed that monologue to begin with.

2. Only use verbal quirks for character development. 

In real life, people pepper their speech with um and uh and like and you know and a host of other sounds and phrases. Of course, the prevalence of these quirks in everyday speech does not need to be reflected in your novel’s dialogue, BUT certain quirks can be used to give readers a better sense of your characters.

Maybe one of your characters is particularly deliberate or nervous when speaking in social situations. They might use um quite a bit. If this is the case, the frequent use of um should be unique to that character. (Note: Avoid the clichéd technique of showing a character is ditzy by having them say like frequently. It’s been used so much that it borders on caricature at this point).

3. Historical doesn’t have to be histrionic. 

If your characters are from a bygone era, it makes sense that they wouldn’t use modern slang. While it is important to avoid anachronism, be careful not to wander too far off in the other direction.

Just because your hero is a courtier of Charles II doesn’t mean he needs to say Ods-fish! at the beginning of every sentence. Similarly, Victorian women need not ask for smelling salts unless doing so is crucial to the plot, and even though medieval knights may very well have peppered their speech with the word forsooth, that doesn’t mean the knight in your novel has to say it more than one or two times, if that. Bottom line: don’t overdo the archaic language.

(If you were wondering, Ods-fish is a corruption of the old curse “God’s flesh” and by far my favorite word in the history of exclamations.)

4. Don’t use caps lock! 

This one’s a bit controversial, and I must admit I’ve seen all caps dialogue used to good effect in novels. But generally speaking, caps lock is a crutch used when an author can’t convey strong emotion through context or through the content of the dialogue itself. If you’ve done a good job setting the scene and developing your character, readers should know that the character is shouting without help from the font size.

5. Don’t forget to listen. 

Keeping in mind that the point is not to replicate exactly the details of everyday speech, listen closely to conversations happening around you to get a sense of the cadences and rhythms of it. Sometimes conversations move quickly back and forth, as is the case with banter; sometimes they are awkward and halting; sometimes they are uneven, with one person consistently speaking at greater length than the other. If you’re having trouble writing dialogue, don’t forget that inspiration is all around you. Just remember to remove the ums.

These are just a few common dialogue mistakes to avoid. For more on dialogue tags, read Kat’s post here. For a discussion of why you should avoid “teenspeak,” read Liz’s post here.

Got any other dialogue-related questions? Ask away in the comments!

About the author - Val O.

Hi, friends! I am an omnivorous reader with a preference for difficult heroines, flawed heroes, and unfrilly writing. In college, ...

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4 comments on "Say What?: 5 Tips for Avoiding Common Dialogue Mistakes"

S.C. McMurray on July 2, 2017, 1:38 p.m. said:

S.C. McMurray


This article is super helpful. Do you have any tips for when a character is talking to herself when the plot demands it (i.e. lost in the woods)?

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Val O. on July 5, 2017, 11:06 a.m. said:

Val O.


Characters talking to themselves are often in danger of violating the first guideline, "Don't monologue." To avoid this, first think about what it would make sense for your character to say out loud to herself. If it's something that she would probably be thinking but wouldn't say out loud, it's likely that this is exposition that shouldn't be conveyed through dialogue. For instance, a character probably would not say to herself, "I'm lost in the woods because I got distracted when I was thinking about x and now I have to find my way back to y." Context should have told the reader this.

However, if she's trying to orient herself, she might give herself directions out loud in order to focus. She might reprimand herself for being so easily distracted. Or she might recite some poem or song to keep herself calm.

In general, just be honest with yourself about what the dialogue is doing. Most of the time, dialogue isn't the right place for explanations you couldn't convey through other means. Rather, it should move the plot forward through inter- or intrapersonal character development.

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S.C. McMurray on July 5, 2017, 3:08 p.m. said:

S.C. McMurray


So I need to make sure her self dialogue is not expositional but instead organic to the situation while developing her character and furthering the plot. That's really helpful. Thanks for taking the time to respond, I appreciate it!

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J.M.Colbert on June 27, 2017, 1:22 p.m. said:

J.M.Colbert


This is one of the best and most important blogs I've come across here. Well done, I can press how important I think it is for folks to try and make conversations realistic and as someone who tried and failed at historical dialogues thanks for saying what you are saying. Great blog post!

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