There are a lot of common dialogue mistakes that are easy to make if you’re not specifically trying to avoid them. The following are the vast majority of them.
Too Much Repetition
“Where did you put that suitcase?”
“The one you had with you earlier.”
“Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention that suitcase again.”
Repetition can sometimes be a problem in description, but it’s all the more noticeable in dialogue.
Overly Formal Speech
“Where were you last night, John?”
“My phone died. Anyway, I’d love to tell you, but I don’t think you would believe it!”
“I’m sure I would. Please tell me. I want to know.”
“Okay then. I went to see Susan last night.”
“Why? You know nothing good will ever come of seeing her.”
If you take note of the above dialogue, you can probably guess the context fairly well. These are young people, friends, both men, possibly college students… but all of this information is in WHAT is being said, and not HOW it is being said. The dialogue feels false. When people write novels without picturing how their characters would actually speak, we are often left with extremely formal dialogue that serves only to progress the plot. Let’s see how two college students might actually talk.
“Jesus, where’d you go last night? I tried calling you like ten times!”
“Sorry. My phone died.”
“You look like shit.”
“I feel like shit… I saw Susan.”
“Oh… Well I guess that explains that.”
Characters That Repeat Catchphrases
When it comes to dialogue, you should have a pretty broad definition of what a “catchphrase” actually is. It doesn’t always have to be a common expression. Anything that shows a character’s way of thinking can be a catch phrase, and sometimes, they can be extremely small.
If on page 12, John says, “It’s not a big deal,” nobody else can say that for the rest of the book! If he says, “It’s like I told you before,” when explaining something, nobody else should be allowed to say that either. If it’s too much work making sure that catchphrases don’t overlap, you could always try not having them! Seriously. Nobody will miss them anyway!
While it’s true that almost everybody at some point in their lives uses these expressions, that’s not an excuse for your characters to use them. Remember, characters are not people. This brings us to our next point.
Mimicking Real Conversations
In writing classes, you are taught to go out and listen to people talk – to record their conversations on busses and in coffee houses, to transcribe and to study them… While it’s useful to know how people sound in real conversations, it’s important that you don’t mimic them too closely. Here is something that could very well be an actual conversation.
“Hey. How are you feeling?”
“Better. I still have a bit of a cough but my lungs feel clearer now – and I actually slept a bit last night, so that’s good.”
“Yeah, that’s great… Did you see that game last night?”
“No, I didn’t catch it. Was it good?”
“It was pretty solid. I mean X can’t throw worth anything, but the rest of the team carried him.”
“What was the score?”
“24 to 21, XYZ TEAM.”
Et cetera… et cetera…
This conversation could go on for twenty pages before anybody actually said anything worth hearing. You simply don’t have that kind of time. Certain mannerisms can be mimicked, but the flow of the conversation, and the importance of each individual line of dialogue has to be intensified in order for a story to work – and don’t listen to anybody who tells you differently!
Allowing Characters To Tell Us Their Emotions
The most common way that authors try to get out emotion in dialogue is by having a character comment on another character’s emotion: “Why do you look so sad?”/”Don’t raise your voice at me. I had nothing to do with it!” This kind of pandering to the reader (the audience) isn’t needed. If your dialogue contains enough emotion, it will come out. If a character says, “If you take one step out of that door we’re finished!”, it can be assumed that the character is angry. You don’t even need “she yelled” at the end of it to make it work (and in fact, it might be better without it.)
There are exceptions. Sometimes characters have a heart-to-heart, and they might be able to say their emotions to each other in a powerful way that moves your readers. Even here, I would recommend never using this for singular emotions. “I just feel angry at everyone,” should be avoided because, if you’ve done your job, we should already see this when John goes to the supermarket or Marie goes to work. It should read more like, “All my life I’ve gone around trying to feel as little as possible, but when I’m with you I don’t care about caution anymore. We’re meant to be together. I know you feel it too.”
Writing “Said” Or “Replied” Too Much
When a conversation begins, it is helpful to know who said it. Also, if the conversation contains more than two people, sometimes, for the sake of clarity, you might find yourself writing “he said”, “she said” or “John said” quite a few times. That’s okay. It’s better to be clear than to remove an extra one or two of these pointers (also known as dialogue tags or dialogue attributions). What is not considered okay by the publishing world, is having full conversations filled with unnecessary pointers.
“Speak softly,” he said. “They might hear you.”
“Who?” John asked.
“Who do you think? The Briarlings!” He paused to scratch at his throat before continuing: “They lurk wherever things worth hearing are being whispered.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to speak louder then?” John asked, confused but still whispering.
“If you speak too loudly, even worse things may hear,” he said.
The above dialogue is delightfully confusing and humorous… It is also fairly clunky. If you’re honest with yourself, there is only one place that really needs a pointer at all. If, however, you think the strange man scratching at his throat is worth including, then do it as an add-on to the traditional “he said”.
“Speak softly,” he said. “They might hear you.”
“Who do you think? The Briarlings! They lurk wherever things worth hearing are being whispered.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to speak louder then?”
The strange man stared at John as if he were a fool.
“If you speak too loudly, even worse things may hear.”
Flippant Dialect Use
If one of your characters speaks with a Cockney accent, keep in mind that you don’t have to write down every single word variation. That can be extremely distracting! This might seem like surprising advice given that certain writers (such as Steinbeck) have made their careers by writing out incredibly accurate dialects in easy to read ways; simply put, however, most modern readers don’t have the patience for dialects. It’s more important that your character uses common Cockney phrases such as “Pop the boot” when asking someone to open the trunk of a car. This is because, having that character say, “Excuse me. Could you open the trunk?” is dishonest. So, as a rule, if he says “’Ello!” write “Hello!”, but if he says “’Ease bleedin’ buggas”, write “These Bleeding Buggers.”
If you are adamant about writing in a dialect, be careful to read a book that contains a character who speaks with your chosen accent. I would also recommend that you either use the dialect in a short story, or with a minor character in a long story. 300+ pages in a code that needs to be deciphered will put off a publisher quicker than you can say, “This is going to cost quite a lot of money to edit.”
“Since the dawn of time, earth’s creatures have lived in relative harmony. That is until mankind came along, expanding like a virus through the land, using its tools in ways no creature had ever before seen.”
“But you said yourself that we’re no different than animals.”
“I did say that, but I was referring to our physiology and our position in the chain of evolution, not to our interconnectedness with nature. You see little Billy, we alone of all creatures consider ourselves outside of the rest of nature… and that, ultimately, will be our downfall.”
In the above dialogue, little Billy isn’t a character. He has no life, no personality, and he fundamentally lacks the thing that makes all characters great: relatability. Never use your characters as a device to get out the information that you want. If you can’t use their unique personalities to say something, it doesn’t belong in your story.
Never Say Goodbye
This is something I learned from writing screenplays. Characters in movies NEVER begin conversations with “Hello.”/”Hey, how’s it going?”/”Good. How about with you?” In Hollywood, when a character answers the phone, they immediately begin speaking – and it’s always important! Conversations begin and end with, “We have the money.”/”Good. Be at the warehouse in ten minutes.” It should be (essentially) the same way in a novel.
Mix It Up
One of the most famous lines of improvisational dialogue in the world comes from none other than Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. When Han Solo is being lowered down to be frozen in carbonite, and Princess Leia says “I love you,” for the first time, Harrison Ford was supposed to respond with “I love you.” Ford didn’t like that. He knew his character was cocky, and would be glad that Leia finally admitted that she loved him, so instead he said “I know.” Millions of viewers around the world consider that line to be one of the most iconic in all of Star Wars.
What can you do to go against expectation in your dialogue?
Write an 800-1500 word conversation between two characters in a setting of your choosing. Make the characters polar opposites from one another: a nun and a hooker, an old woman and a young boy, a civil rights activist and a member of the KKK, a supermodel and a balding 400lbs man et cetera… Pay attention to how each character might speak. Do a little research if necessary. Make sure that each character is important in the conversation, and that the conversation is anything but predictable!