Writing good dialogue can be difficult. Here are some of the most common mistakes beginner writers make.
- Stilted exchanges – Your dialogue may not sound natural. Read it aloud and see if it sounds like something your character would say. Have you included contractions? We say “I’ll” rather than “I will” when we speak to each other.
- Similar voices – Make sure that each character has a distinct voice. He or she should have a different pattern of speech and vocabulary. You can reveal interesting character details, including a level of education or self-awareness, with this technique.
- Small talk – This ‘filler’ dialogue does not advance the plot or our understanding of the characters. Sometimes we insert it because we haven’t let the characters speak for a while or we think we need ‘white space’. Have you made sure the characters are not just talking for the reader’s benefit? We should use dialogue to prompt action or to reveal characters’ emotions and motivations.
- Exposition – This is when a character explains the story in dialogue. This is one of the worst kinds of telling rather than showing. Sometimes an author feels the need to tell the reader something and uses a character to do it rather than weaving the information into the storyline.
- Using names in dialogue – It is unusual for us to say people’s name when we are speaking to them. We only do this if we are trying to attract their attention, for example, ‘Jack! We’re over here!’, or if we want to make a point, for example, ‘I’ve warned you to stop lying, Dylan.’ It is better not to use a character’s name to establish identity. Your character may end up sounding like a salesman at a convention.
- Too many modifiers – We seldom need to use verbs like shouted, stuttered, breathed, exclaimed, cried, mused, whispered,
stammered, uttered, insinuated, or hesitated. Use these dialogue modifiers sparingly. Use the word ‘said’. It works. Your characters’ words and their actions should convey their mood. (You may find these body language cheat sheets useful.)
- Forgotten dialogue tags – A dialogue tag is when we attribute the speech with the words, ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. If a reader has to stop because he or she cannot tell which character is speaking, you need to include more dialogue tags. It is just as important to make sure that you do not crowd the page with too many tags.
- Incorrect dialogue punctuation – Do not confuse your readers. Use quotation marks correctly. Decide on your dialogue format, for example, single or double quotation marks, and use them consistently.
- Unimportant conversations – These pieces are more than small talk, but are usually unnecessary as dialogue. If we need to know that a character will be back on Monday, we do not necessarily need two or more character to impart this information. A character might think about something like this. Most conversations should create friction or tension as well as add information. If they don’t, leave them out.
- Too much talk – Sometimes silence can be more powerful than words. Often, the things we choose not to say are more important than those we do say. There are times when there are no words powerful enough to convey a character’s feelings and times when a character may be incapable of speaking. Use this technique sparingly to make it more effective.
Five Exercises To Help You Avoid These Mistakes
- Eavesdrop. Record conversations to understand how differently we speak. Many of us speak in short statements or use fragments. Others only speak in laborious, grammatically correct, complete sentences.
- Ask five different people the same question. Compare their responses and note the different words they use to convey emotions.
- Write dialogue-only scenes. This reminds you to make the characters sound unique.
- Tell a story. Write a scene where one character tells somebody a story. Craft it so that the other character is engrossed and only interrupts to ask the odd question.
- Silence. Write a scene where one of the characters should speak, but can’t or won’t.
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© Amanda Patterson
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