Common Dialogue Mistakes

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?”

“What 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.”


Expositional Conversations

“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?


Writing Prompt

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!

How To Self-Edit

I encourage everyone to self-edit, and that surprised a lot of people. There’s an idea that, if people edit their own work, they won’t actually need an editor… I don’t believe that one bit. Everyone needs a fresh, ideally professional, set of eyes. Sometimes, no matter how much writer’s edit, they see what they think they wrote, not what they actually wrote. Editors don’t. As much as I believe in editors however, even if you have all the money in the world and can afford to go through as many as three editors, I STILL think you should be doing self-editing! If you don’t edit what you can, an editor will probably be able to help you – but why should they? When they’re editing what you could fix yourself, too much of their time is spent on typos, grammatically incorrect sentences and other small issues to pay as much attention to other areas! What’s more, if upon completion you send off an unedited manuscript to publishers, I can pretty much guarantee that they won’t endorse it. When there are thousands of possible clients sending them books that are practically ready to print, why would they take a chance on a project that would require them to spend more time and money to get it prepared? It doesn’t matter how good it is. Now that you see why self-editing can be so important, here are a couple of things that you can do before you send your manuscript off to an editor, agent or publisher.


Switch Passive Voice To Active Voice

This is a really common piece of advice, but it directly applies to immediate fixes you should be making during the editing process. Most examples of the passive voice in writing books are extremely obvious (“The ball was picked up and thrown by Tom” et cetera…), but when most people accidentally touch on the passive voice, it is far less extreme. When you come across sentences like, “They were invited over by their neighbors for Tea,” or “The animal rights group was well-loved among the monkeys they saved,” it can be easy to pass over them without a second thought, but both of these sentences are written in the clunky and unemotional passive voice. The passive voice, simply put, is the style of writing where things happen to your nouns. In the first example, the ball is what I like to call an “artificial subject.” The focus, instead of being on Tom as it would normally be, is on the ball. The passive voice here isn’t necessarily a problem if you actually want the focus to be on the ball. In a story about a magical ball that changes the fortunes of all who touch it, this sentence would be perfectly reasonable… In a typical story though, it’s clunky, and forces attention where it doesn’t belong. The fix is obvious, “Tom picked up and threw the ball.” The second two examples can be fixed by saying “Their neighbors invited them over for tea,” and “The monkeys loved the animal rights group that saved them.” The active voice is more direct and more emotional; this is why scientific papers are purposefully written in the passive voice! If it’s a little more confusing and a little less emotional, it sounds like a much more important discovery.


When Possible, Remove Direct Characterization

“Raul felt angry” or “Jen was the type of person to put the needs of everyone else above her own” are both perfectly reasonable sentences, but they might be examples of narrators overstepping their bounds. If Raul slams his fists on the table, don’t we know he’s angry? If Jen gives up a seat even though her ankle is throbbing, don’t we know that she puts the needs of others above her own? If your characters really do what you say they will, there’s no need to explain it beforehand! I would guess that, when it comes to the philosophy of “Show, don’t tell,” 90% of the violations come from direct characterization. Another issue I have with direct characterization is characterization devoid of examples. If you as the narrator say that Patty is a soft-hearted person who is always thinking of others, but, because she gets so caught up in the craziness of your plot, she never actually gets around to treating anyone with kindness, then your narration will ring false. Your reader will be confused as to why it is there in the first place.


Turn Responsive Characters Into Active Characters

As time goes on, more and more of the books that I edit are “action novels,” written in the vein of the modern television thriller. There is nothing wrong with that whatsoever – it’s good to have a highly intricate plot – but when perfecting your pre-editor draft, you should be on the lookout for areas where your character is being dragged along. Here are two scenarios to demonstrate what I’m talking about.


Scenario 1:

Your character is told by his superior to disarm a bomb, and so he does.

Scenario 2:

Your character is told by his superior that there’s not enough time to disarm the bomb, but instead, he disobeys a direct order and puts his life on the line to save the lives of everyone left in the building.


Seeing the scenarios written out like that, it’s probably fairly obvious which one makes for the more powerful scene. Oftentimes, however, authors simply don’t think about ways to put control into the hands of their characters. They think, “Hey, I have pages and pages filled with hot girls, fast cars, huge explosions and tons of emotional drama! What more do I need?!” The answer is character development. In my mind, when it comes to the novel, the plot should always be secondary to the characters. One of the best ways to develop your character is to have them act in ways that other people wouldn’t act, and to do things that other people wouldn’t do. They can still check the mail and go out to eat like normal people, but when they do, you aren’t giving your readers any glimpse into who they are as individuals. If you don’t give them options to act on their own, and instead yank them around through plot devices, you might have the makings for a decent action movie, but not a novel. This point reminds me of something I used to say when I was editing screenplays at UCSB: “There’s not a person alive who wouldn’t run away from an ax murderer.”


Remove Unnecessary Semi-Colons

A very common writing mistake is the overuse of semi-colons. Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers, used to say that all semi-colons did was “show off that you’ve been to college.” He completely swore them off in his writing, and his work didn’t suffer whatsoever as a result. While I personally value the occasional well-placed semi-colon, writers tend to go overboard. If something like twenty percent of your sentences have a semi-colon in the middle, you’re probably one of them.

If you’re using them correctly, a semi-colon should connect what would otherwise be two distinct yet similar sentences (or, less commonly, to separate items in a list). It should NOT serve as a conjunction as in the following example: “I love him; even though he doesn’t have much money, I can’t stay away.” If you’re using them accurately, the fix is easy – either replace the semi-colon with a period and capitalize what is now your second sentence, or replace it with a comma and add a conjunction. Here are some examples where a semi-colon detracts from the quality of your writing.

Example: He ran like a bat out of hell; as fast as he was going, he was so focused that he could almost count the blades of grass as he passed them.

Fix: He ran like a bat out of hell, but as fast as he was going, he was so focused that…

Example: The doors closed and I was alone. I could hardly breathe; it was as if all the air had rushed outside and I was doomed to suffocate inside those walls.

Fix: The doors closed and I was alone. I could hardly breathe. It was as if all the air had rushed outside and I was doomed to suffocate inside those walls.


Put Your Punctuation On The Inside Of Quotations

“This is the correct way to do it.”

“That’s right. It’s an easy fix that will make for a very happy editor!”


Remove Distracting Things After Quotations

He looked out from their safe-haven under the park bridge to make sure they were alone. They were.

“I can’t believe I didn’t notice this place before,” he said boisterously, lord knows why.

“Yeah… Sometimes we get so busy we forget about places like these,” she replied, even though she could have just said it.

“You look pretty,” he exclaimed, even though there is no reason whatsoever he should be exclaiming anything.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. If your character is going to say something, you should let their words tell us how they say it. An exception might be “he shouted,” because someone shouting might be relevant to the plot. Even then, if the line is followed by an exclamation point and somebody immediately comes by and tells him to keep it down, the reader will probably get the idea. Here is the same scene written in a simpler, much more elegant way:


He looked out from their safe-haven under the park bridge to make sure they were alone. They were.

“I can’t believe I didn’t notice this place before…”

“Yeah… Sometimes we get so busy we forget about places like these,” she said.

“You look pretty.”


In the above version, I didn’t even include the initial “he said,” because it wasn’t needed. He was the last person to do an action, so it stands to reason that the dialogue would belong to him. What’s more, given that they are alone under the bridge, the “she said” on the end of the third line makes it quite clear who the initial speaker was. If you have a lot of these kinds of things in your writing, you might not want to remove them out of fear of losing some of your word count – but that would be a mistake. Word count isn’t everything. It’s better to have a short, highly polished novel than a long novel full of distracting tidbits that risk annoying your readers. (Think Albert Camus!)


Fix Dialogue Bleed

For an in-depth discussion on dialogue bleed see my previous post Common Writing Styles That Cause Problems. Keep in mind that dialogue bleed doesn’t just occur when an author decides not to use quotations. It can happen under a variety of circumstances. Make sure that the cut-off between your dialogue and description is always clear.


Remove Exposition

Exposition happens when an author tries to get out back-story in shameless ways. For example, if at the beginning of a novel, your main character is sitting on the couch, thinking about her sister whose husband has recently died in a car accident, simply because it would take too much effort to reveal it naturally through dialogue or description, you’ve written exposition. Exposition is the death of subtext, and it often illuminates things that the reader will figure out in a few pages anyway. If possible, try to remove it entirely.


A Few Extra Suggestions That Require No Explanation:

  • Scan manuscript for typos.
  • Fix accidental point of view shifts.
  • Remove accidental drifting into the omniscient.
  • Replace pointless additions in-between dialogue such as “He paused” with real action.
  • If a character has a catch phrase such as “The way I see it…” make sure no other character uses it. If they do, it will ring false.
  • Watch for excessive punctuation. The most commonly overused marks are semicolons and ellipses, exclamation points and dashes being tie for a distant third.
  • Check stylistic choices for consistency.
  • Make sure your character’s motivations don’t change too suddenly at any point.
  • Read your dialogue aloud, and make sure it sounds natural.


If you keep this list in mind when you edit your novel, you’ll set your project apart from the average manuscript, and make it much easier to secure an editor, agent or publisher.


Writing Prompt

Take a story you've already written and edit it! You don't need me this week, but if you do have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them!