6 Common Dialogue Mistakes to Avoid

Writing dialogue can be tricky. Your characters should sound real, but not too real. They need to explain certain things, but not too much. They should discuss elements of their lives, but in an interesting way. What it boils down to is balance and common sense.

Here’s a list of things to avoid when writing dialogue:

1. Introductions and niceties: Don’t have your characters answer the phone like this, “Hello?” “Hi, is this Glenda?” “Yes, it is. Who’s this?” “It’s Gerald.” “Oh, hi. How are you doing?” “Pretty good and you?” If this were written in true manuscript format, I’d have covered six lines and nothing was said yet. While it’s true we speak like that in real life, we don’t need to have our characters talk like that. Instead, you can skip past all of this and get right into the real dialogue.

2. Info dumps: There are two kinds of info dumps in dialogue. The first one is simply where the character goes on and on about something, taking up more than a few lines. I’ve seen some characters talk for a whole page without interruptions. Granted, we know people who are long winded in real life, but we don’t want to read about them. The other example of an info dump in dialogue is when a character says something like this, “As you know, Abby, when we broke up a few months ago, I decided to move on with my life.” If the character knows something, but the reader doesn’t, dialogue isn’t the place to slip it in. At least not like this. You may have to have the character talk to someone who doesn’t know the situation, or have the character internalize about the situation instead.

3. Waste of time: Make sure the dialogue is always goal-driven. There must be a reason for it. Aimless conversations are a waste of time for the writer and the reader. The discussion must accomplish something. Are you informing the reader about a situation or character? Is the character learning something that will help them grow, add conflict, or move the plot forward?

4. Conversations with more than three characters: Typically, a conversation between two characters is the easiest to follow, but sometimes the story requires three or more characters to chat. One way to do this is to have conflicting opinions. For example, if Ginger’s mom is okay with her going on a date, but her father doesn’t think she’s old enough, then it would be clear who’s speaking without too many dialogue tags. However, if both parents agree, it would be hard to tell who’s talking without having dialogue tags everywhere.

5. Transcripts: Make sure the dialogue is more than just dialogue. We need actions tags to show what the characters are doing. Even in real life, if people are sitting at a table chatting, they’re doing more than that. Maybe they’re sipping their drink or people watching. Maybe they’re twiddling their thumbs or slipping their flip flop on and off. Show us not only what these characters are doing, but what’s happening around them and how that affects them.

6. The name game: Don’t have your characters repeatedly refer to each other by name. For example, “I love you, Beth.” “I love you, too, Morris.” “I don’t want you to ever leave, Beth.” “Morris, I could never leave you.” Characters should rarely, if ever, refer to each other by name. There’s no need for it and it makes the dialogue sound stilted. Think about it. How often do you say your significant other’s name? Use that as a guide.

While dialogue can be hard to write, using a list like this will help you keep it real.

What other dialogue mistakes have you encountered?

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