5 Mistakes Killing Your Dialogue
by Writing Workshops Staff
A year ago
Don’t let anyone tell you differently: writing strong dialogue is hard work.
It takes serious effort to create characters whose words are engaging, realistic, and drive the story forward. Whether you’re writing a mystery novel or the next best piece of historical fiction, your character dialogue can make or break the whole book.
Here are five common, yet often overlooked, mistakes in crafting dialogue that could be holding your project back.
Dialogue That Sounds Too Poetic
We’re all for beautiful prose. But the second you start crafting character dialogue that sounds too poetic, your work loses a lot of credibility.
Why? Because most people don’t speak that way. We don’t use long, perfectly put together sentences worthy of a Pulitzer. So the more down to earth you can keep your dialogue, the more authentic your characters will seem to your readers.
Dialogue That’s Too Realistic
Of course, you want your characters to convey a good degree of believability. But rewriting verbatim the last fight you had with your partner? That’s not going to cut it.
Think about it this way: how many times have you engaged in a conversation with a friend while internally screaming for them to get to the point? We turn to books because our brains have a natural desire to know what happens next. So cut out the fluff that you put up with in real life for the sake of your reader’s (and your) sanity.
Forsaking Dialogue In All the Right Places
On the flip side, some writers miss golden opportunities to drive emotional impact through their dialogue. This is especially true when there’s relational tension between characters that you, as the writer, must resolve.
Let’s say your protagonist has been madly in love with her neighbor since they were kids. When she finally confesses her feelings, show the confrontation through dialogue – not explanatory prose.
Repeating What’s Already Been Said in the Narration
Over explanation can be a pesky problem that you’ll need to weed out if you want to craft a gripping page-turner. Try to avoid any redundancy in your dialogue. If the narrator’s already summarized an action, there’s no point in the dialogue emphasizing the same point all over again.
Imagine you have two characters conspiring on how to break into a convenience store in the dead of night. You don’t need to explain their plan of action through both dialogue and narration. Choose one or the other.
Not Distinguishing Between Character Voices
Listen closely to the people in your life, and you’ll notice that they all have their own unique tapestry of word choices, inflections, and cadences. One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is animating each of their characters with the exact same tone and voice. Don’t get me wrong - it can be a real challenge to dimensionalize the way each character speaks. However, the more time you put into distinguishing between them, the more powerful your writing will become.
A good place to start is with your character sketches. Make a list of people you know will serve as realistic reflections of the character you’re writing, and spend some time observing how they speak. With a bit of extra effort, the difference will become palpable.
Writing Dialogue Just to Fill Up the Page
“Hi Lucy,” he said.
“Hi Michael,” she said.
They glanced to their left, where a crowd of other students were seated.
“Oh, hey guys,” they said.
Are you asleep yet? I wouldn’t be surprised. Of all the things that will get your reader to hit the snooze button, filler dialogue is at the top of the list. Try to avoid unnecessary conversations at all costs. They do nothing to drive your narrative forward, or convey the dimensionality of your characters.
Even if you’re a dialog pro, you’ll need to discern between when it helps, and when a concise summation would be more effective.
What’s your biggest struggle when it comes to writing good dialogue?