By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
Awkward or boring dialogue can make readers cringe and toss our books aside to find something better.
A few months ago, I wrote a post called 10 Writing Mistakes that Kill Your First Chapter. Because of how much everyone liked that post, I decided to do a follow up. So today I’m sharing the top 10 dialogue mistakes that kill your story (in no particular order).
#1 – Too Much Direct Address
Direct address is where we call a person by their name or title (e.g., Mother, Doc).
“Bob, would you pass the peas?”
“Of course, Mary.” He turned to look at Frank. “Frank, I heard you got a new job.”
“Yes, Bob. I’m liking it a lot.”
Almost no one talks this way, and the people who do are considered strange. You can use a name or title once in a while in your dialogue, but make sure you’re doing it strategically (for example, people will often use names during an argument).
#2 – Allowing a Character to Speak Uninterrupted for Paragraphs (or Pages!)
How much do you enjoy being around a person who talks for five or ten or fifteen minutes (or more) without letting anyone else get a word in? Probably not that much.
Since this is a short list, I’ll give you just four reasons why allowing a character to talk uninterrupted is a problem. The first is that the reader usually ends up feeling preached to. The second is that you lose all sense of setting. The third is that it stops the action dead. The forth is that it can hurt the likeability and believability of your windbag character.
Even if your character is giving a speech of some kind, you need to interrupt them with body language, actions by other characters, or internal dialogue from the point-of-view character.
#3 – Dialogue That’s Too Formal
This could be someone who uses multisyllabic words when a simple word will do, it could be a character who always uses perfect grammar or doesn’t use contractions, or it could be a character who always speaks in complete sentences and never uses a sentence fragment.
You might have a good reason for wanting to do one of these things, but most readers will find it awkward. We don’t talk this way in real life, and the rare people who do are considered stuck up.
#4 – Dialogue That Repeats What’s Also in Action or Internal Dialogue
This is also known as redundancy. It can happen on a small scale.
He shook his head. “No.”
Or it can also happen big-picture. If, for example, we’re going to have a character cracking a safe, we don’t need to have them explain the whole process to another character before it happens. That makes it boring for the reader to then have to sit through the description of our character actually cracking the safe (even if something goes wrong).
#5 – Creative Dialogue Tags
A creative dialogue tag looks like this:
“I’m going to kill you,” she hissed.
When you have a character hiss, growl, beg, demand, or (insert another descriptor here) their sentence, you’re violating the show, don’t tell principle. It’s usually a sign of weak dialogue. And if they’re used indiscriminately, they can give your writing a cartoonish feel.
They’re also impossible. Go ahead—try to hiss or growl an entire sentence. Or try to laugh or snarl an entire sentence.
#6 – Not Making It Clear Who’s Speaking
Do not make your reader guess who’s speaking or count back through your lines of dialogue to figure out who said what.
If we have more than three lines of unattributed dialogue in a row (dialogue without a tag like said or an action beat), we can risk the reader losing track of who’s speaking. If we have a scene with multiple speakers, we need to be certain it’s clear who each line of dialogue belongs to. An unattributed line of dialogue could belong to anyone present.
But the sneakiest of all is when we write about two characters in the same paragraph and then tack on a line of dialogue at the end.
Ellen waved her arm above her head, and Frank sprinted towards her. “I’ve missed you.”
Who said “I’ve missed you”? It could be Frank or it could be Ellen, and the reader has no way to tell which one it really is.
#7 – Too Much Filler Dialogue
We don’t need to hear our characters say hello, ask each other how they’ve been, and all the other small talk we make on a daily basis because it’s the polite thing to do. Those don’t forward the story, and they’re boring to read.
We also shouldn’t fill our dialogue with a lot of umms, ers, and ahs. Every word needs to count.
#8 – As-You-Know-Bob Dialogue
As-You-Know-Bob dialogue is when one character tells another character something they already know. It’s done purely for the reader’s benefit (because we’re trying to give the reader some information we think they need to know), and it’s unnatural.
If it’s common knowledge, it won’t come up in conversation, and real people won’t say something that isn’t relevant to the conversation.
#9 – Dialogue That Sounds the Same No Matter Who’s Speaking
If you’ve been told your characters seem flat, sometimes the problem isn’t that you haven’t fully developed your characters. Sometimes it’s the way you’re writing their dialogue. They might all sound like you or like each other.
#10 – Dialogue That Requires a Rosetta Stone to Decode
“S’pose we must be resigned; but oh Lord! how ken I? If I know’d anything whar you’s goin’, or how they’d sarve you! Missis says she’ll try and ’deem ye, in a year or two; but Lor! nobody never comes up that goes down thar! They kills ’em! I’ve hearn ’em tell how dey works ’em up on dem ar plantations.” (From Chapter 10 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe)
Dialect written out phonetically like this is a bad idea for many reasons. It’s frustrating to your reader. You don’t want anyone to have to work that hard just to understand what your characters are saying. It pulls them out of the fictional dream. Beyond this, dialect used in this way sounds forced and can even border on demeaning to whatever group you’re trying to imitate.
Do you have any other common dialogue problems you’d like to add to the list? Which of these causes you the most headaches in your own writing? Or when you’re reading?
Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide. (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)
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Image Credit: FreeImages.com/Samuel Alves Rosa