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!

Tips For New Writers BEFORE You Begin A Project!

Decide How You Are Going To Punctuate!

Let’s say that somewhere in chapter thirty you find yourself needing to write down the contents of a street sign. How would you do it?


“He thought he was on Parker street, but when he reached the street sign it read ‘Pine Rd’.”


“He thought he was on Parker street, but when he reached the street sign it read Pine Rd.”

This may seem like an immaterial distinction to most beginning writers – neither way really matters after all. What does matter, however, is consistency. If half of your book puts signs in quotations and the other half puts them in italics, that can be very negative for you as an author. You won’t come across as having planned very well, readers are less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if any questions arise in their mind, and/or you’ll have to do a lot of editing in the future to make up for your lack of planning!

Also, be sure to plan your personalized punctuation. There will be instances where you might prefer stylistic choices that are outside of the norm. A personal example from my own work comes from the big debate in the editing community right now about the use of “all right” vs. “alright”. The general consensus now is to use “all right” in any and all cases. I personally, don’t agree with this. What if somebody cut their arm and a character asked, “Are you feeling all right?” In my mind, this seems like a flawed question. How could somebody be all right, as in completely right, if their arm is bleeding? Knowing personal preferences like these beforehand is important. Before you begin a project you should do yourself a favor and ask yourself the tough questions:

  • Do you want to use quotations?
  • Will you indent your paragraphs, as is common, or try to save printing space as in the up and coming style?
  • Will you put dialogue on separate lines?
  • What tense will you be using?

Remember, consistency is key!


Start With Something Other Than A Novel!

It takes time to develop your own unique style. If you start with a novel, you will be discovering it as you go along. This is a problem, not just because of the consistency issues listed above, but because without being extremely familiar with your preferred way of doing things, you might not be able to elegantly convey the messages that you want to convey. I recommend writing several short stories before you begin a novel. Ideally, use your stories as training tools to practice your craft, decide your favorite tenses and discover/fix your personal disadvantages. This is the best time to test the boundaries of what you are capable of in your writing! Another way to test your writing ability beforehand is to write a screenplay. A screenplay, because it is a bigger project, is a great test to give oneself as a starting writer. It will give you as a writer a chance to see what it’s like to work on a larger project, and will force you to plan your work in a very similar way. Whatever you do, beginning a novel can be a daunting task! If you do it without the proper preparation, you might find yourself unable to finish or left holding a 30,000 word book!


Know Your General Point Before Word One!

It’s okay if you prefer to write without knowing your destination. While I personally thrive with 10+ pages of planning, not everybody does. What is not okay is meandering. In my work with new fiction I’ve come across stories about characters who have no life goals, who wonder aimlessly from place to place, simply because their authors didn’t know what to do with them. Just having a message or, at least, a basic character arc in mind, can help drive your plot forward. By a message, I don’t necessarily mean a moral.

Let’s say you decide to write your book about a poker player in the 70’s – a real Doyle Brunson type, not unaccustomed to having his winnings taken from him at gun point in back-alleys. Your message can be something simple like “Poker players lead rough lives.” This allows you, the author, to know the confines of the story. If your character is a gambler on page one, he needs to be a gambler on page one-hundred and one. This message also prevents you from clearing all his problems away too early.

What happens if you don’t have a message or through-line. Let’s imagine a story about a chronic gambler whose life is really hard until, about half way through the novel, he meets a woman who helps him get over his addiction. Throughout the rest of the book, the ex-player helps other people get over their addictions… what’s the message here? That a good relationship can cure addiction? Not really. If it were, what was the point of the second half of the book? That curing gambling is a good thing? If that's it, it's a really weak message! Do you see how it falls flat? The book has become a series of events devoid of meaning. There must always be something that connects the events in a meaningful way! Think about a good book that may, on the surface, be all over the place. A good example is Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. Billy Pilgrim jumps through from scene to scene throughout the book. The events don’t unfold chronologically. Yet, somehow it works. What holds the book together? It’s the message about the Dresden Bombing, and about war in general: when someone witnesses a great tragedy, sometimes they need an escape in order to keep their sanity.

Before you begin a novel, at least have a general idea of what you’re trying to say! Here’s the sad truth: You will create messages whether you want to or not! The most powerful ones, however, are intentional.


Create A Schedule!

Start small. 300 words a day is more than doable as an initial goal. Depending on how early you have to wake up, consider doing it first thing in the morning before you start your daily ritual. If you can only set aside an hour a day, you might be surprised at how much you’ll actually get done during that time. Not everybody has time to write 2000 words a day like Stephen King, but a schedule will force you to be honest with yourself about what kind of time you DO have to write. The most common reason I hear for not setting aside specific time to work on your book is “I don’t even have time to make a schedule!” Okay. If that’s really, honestly true, you certainly don’t have enough time to write a novel.


Familiarize Yourself With Similar Material!

If you’re planning on writing a book about aliens invading the US, you should read and watch any similar material you can get your hands on. The point is not to steal their work, but to see if their stories can fuel your own creative efforts. In these cases, don’t read/watch for pleasure. Instead, think about plot holes, what made the dialogue good or bad and the work’s strengths and weaknesses. Let your mind run away with possibilities. Ideally, you’ll find yourself thinking, “That’s good, but what if I did this…” Even if you don’t immediately find anything useful, seeing how other authors wrapped up dilemmas you might face may subconsciously help you with your future problems. Before I start a project, I won’t touch a book that I don’t believe will be useful, either because it’s written in a similar style to my future novel, or because it contains a certain element that I want to incorporate in my own work. Not only is this process immensely helpful, but it allows you to make sure that what you’re writing hasn’t been written before!

Note: Lots of people prefer to write by the seat of their pants. They believe that, because they have no idea how their project is going to turn out, that they can’t do any research beforehand. I completely disagree with this philosophy. If all you know is that you want to write something about a guy who lives in Tennessee, then you know enough to start!


Writing Prompt

Write 500-700 words on the general point of a novel you are planning on writing. I won't edit it, but I'll give you advice on whether the idea has what it takes, what works to look at, and how to maximize your ideas effectiveness!

All About Flashbacks

We all know that in the last fifty years or so, flashbacks have run rampant. Sometimes they are used well, but most of the time they break the flow of a story. Books like How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Fray recommend using flashbacks “only when you have to,” but they rarely go into specifics on why flashbacks can be so irritating for readers. On that note, this article has a dual purpose. The first is to explain the problems inherent in using flashbacks, and the second is to give you a few ways to minimize them in your writing. Let’s begin.

The problem with flashbacks isn’t as clear cut as some writers may believe. I personally avoid them entirely in my writing, but it’s not the concept of the flashback so much as the way they are often executed that causes the trouble. Here are a few EXTREMELY common tendencies that, if you are going to come across as a professional, need to be avoided entirely.

1) Having Your Character Enter Flashbacks Too Often

This is just unrealistic. While the best plots are character based and not action based, there should always be some kind of action in the lives of your characters – they are better, smarter or just different than the average people (or else why are we reading about them?!) So, in the hectic life of these other-beings, how do they have time to allow the smell of a flower to transport them back to a time when they were bouncing on their father’s knee? If it happens once, okay, fine… but I have read and edited books where it happens hundreds of times! This brings us directly into the next point.

2) Unrealistic Memory Sequences

“Being punched in the face brought me back to the time when…” Sound ridiculous? This kind of stuff happens all the time. Author’s first novels especially are filled with people running away from serial killers who, simply because of the color of the street, are transported to a business meeting they had two years ago. THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN. Your writing should mimic reality, and in reality, when you are fighting for your life, you simply don’t care about anything except the knife in your assailant’s hand and whether or not you are going to die.

3) Breaking Action Scenes

Flashbacks at their best, serve to show back-story. When you are in the middle of an action sequence, whether it be physical action or emotional action, that’s the only story you should be focusing on. Simply put, your reader doesn’t care why your character is in that position – at least not until much later. What they want is to see how it turns out. They want you to make them feel something: fear, shock, anger, sadness… When you set up a sequence with resonance, and then pull away to explain why your character is there, it’s the equivalent of handing and ice cream cone to a child and then quickly taking it away and saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll get this back later.” As you can probably imagine, it doesn’t create any positive emotions.

But what about movies? Lots of movies begin with a crazy action sequence. A man in a cashier’s uniform is driving a car. Suddenly, a black van cuts him off and he slams on the breaks! Five or Six men jump out and grab him, abducting him in front of 100+ eyewitnesses. The police try to pursue, but the van does some kind of daring maneuver and they’ve abducted the man. THEN, we begin the movie with a close-up of our seemingly-average-Joe cashier as he helps somebody buy a pair of pants at the local clothing store. All in all, this is a fairly strong sequence, but the action scene itself is still ruined. Think about it. Either a) We find out that Joe is actually an ex-marine who was placed on a secret mission to kill a foreign political leader (Not Kim Jong-un guys, nobody freak out.) In this scenario, the sequence was all smoke. We used a reverse flashback to give a scene that wouldn’t have been shocking the element of surprise and by the time we get to its actual place in film, that game has been played already; or b) It would have been surprising, but instead of having a shocking turn of events, the viewers of this imaginary movie are now actively trying to find out why Joe was in this situation. Either way, by the time we get to that sequence, it’s been played out. Flashbacks destroy the tension of action sequences. That’s just the way it is.

4) Using Flashbacks Too Early

I recently read For Whom The Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemmingway, and while it was a wonderfully written novel in many ways, the opening felt very weak. In the very first chapter, about three pages in, we flashback a week earlier to the events that brought our main character, Robert Jordan, to the heart of the Spanish Civil War. Most readers, myself included, probably wouldn’t have learned the character’s first name three pages in, so the question is: Why should we care? Flashbacks exist to bring out character traits and show vital information that may have been left out along the way. In essence, a flashback serves to answer questions. Why is a character acting a certain way? Where did Ned get that bazooka from? If you start flashing back in your first two or three chapters, there simply aren’t enough questions that readers need answered. What’s more, if there are, you are almost always answering them too quickly! You want your readers dying to know something before you reveal it to them. If you answer their questions before they’ve even thought of them, you aren’t leaving very many places of tension!

5) Throwing Flashbacks at Your Character

In many first time novels, flashbacks can come across like a character obstacle. Oftentimes, this is not what the writer intended. A common fallacy concerning flashbacks is that characters have to be in the experience themselves. Back to the first example, if the smell of a flower transports your character back in time, and he is living the memory over again, this can make your character appear to have mental problems! It is as if they are incapable of living in the present moment. If you are going to use flashbacks, it’s best to use them casually. Here is an example.

“The last time John ate an orange he was back in Napa with his family. He wasn’t yet eight years old and his sister…”

In this example, even though the action has shifted to the past, the reader isn’t jarred by the sudden explosion of prose born from something as simple as an orange.


So how do you avoid flashbacks?

1) Work the Back-Story in Using Dialogue

It might be harder, but it’s far more elegant. Of course, I’m not suggesting you do exposition:

“Ted, how’d you get that scar?”

“This? Well, I got this when I was fighting in Vietnam. Yes, I may look like a normal guy, but I have some hidden demons...”

If this is the best you can do, I recommend sticking with flashbacks! That said, if you just keep your character’s past in mind, you’ll be surprised how many times it comes out in your writing. Maybe one of his military buddies visits the town? Maybe his alcoholic grandfather gives him a tough time about how he only served 15 years in the army when his other sons are both Generals by now. There are many ways to bring out these kinds of revelations without resorting to flashbacks, and your readers will be thankful for it!

2) Work the Back-Story in Using Description

If your novel is written in the First Person, this is incredibly easy. First person is already in the head of the character, so it actually takes less effort to do it this way than to use a flashback!

“The store clerk looked at me with more spite that a Viet-cong soldier. If I’d had my M16 with me, there’d have been clean up on three isles.”

In third person, it’s a lot easier to use action.

3) Action

Let’s imagine a mugger jumps our Vet in the street. This is a great opportunity for dramatic, exceedingly interesting character development. What if, when the mugger attacks, he immediately disarms him, takes him to the ground and snaps his arm in three places? Maybe we didn’t specifically say that this guy has military training, but I guarantee you that your readers will realize that there’s something out of the norm going on!

4) Simply Don’t Explain!

Your readers don’t need to know everything. If there are things they don’t know about your character, FANTASTIC! Think about your best friend. You probably know him or her very well. Do you know everything about them? Of course not! People are complex. Why would you want your characters to be any different? I personally love it when authors entice their readers and then don’t ever go back to fill in the blanks.

“You know, this reminds me of that one time at Lake Powell…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean…”

Then go off and talk about something else entirely! Wonderful. Never force your dialogue to reveal things to the readers. If both Jack and Peggy know exactly what happened at Lake Powell, don’t explain it. This is a fantastic trick to add realism, but keep in mind it should only be used for fairly minor plot points such as the one above. If you spend half a novel talking about something, you’ve effectively made a promise to wrap it up. If after that, it just kind of drops off and we never hear about it again, you’ve broken the trust of your readers.


Writing Prompt

Whatever your choices regarding flashbacks, you might as well learn to write them correctly! Write 200 words on a character in a normal setting, then ELEGANTLY flashback for another 500-800 words. As always, if send it to me via the contact tab, I'll edit it for free!