3 Common Dialogue Mistakes (And How To Fix Them)
Once you've woven together your plot and characters—and developed an immersive setting—dialogue is the next piece of the storytelling puzzle to focus on. In this post, I’m sharing the 3 most common dialogue mistakes I see writers make—and how to avoid making them in your draft.
3 Common Dialogue Mistakes (& How To Fix Them)
Mistake #1: Overly fancy attributions, adverbs, action tags
The first mistake I see a lot of writers make with their dialogue is that they use overly fancy attributions, adverbs, or action tags—or they go the opposite route and completely omit these things altogether. Let’s talk about attributions first.
Attributions exist to let the reader know who is speaking.
Many writers are under the (incorrect) impression that using the word “said” is not creative enough and therefore they drive themselves crazy trying to find ways not to use the word “said” in their writing.
This is almost always a mistake.
Readers don't really notice the word “said” as much as you think they do. It’s almost like an invisible word that helps you (the author) keep things crystal clear for the reader.
Of course, it is possible to use the word “said” in an abusive fashion, but more often than not, I see writers leaving it out or using “fancier” words instead.
Now, on occasion, you may need to use substitute words—for example, “whispered” or “growled” or “spat.” But be careful with this!
Almost always, the tone of the scene and the words the character uses should tell the reader how the words are being spoken. So, instead of reaching for a thesaurus, I’d rather see you focus on making the words and actions in your scenes more vivid.
However, there are caveats to this as well.
Sometimes, it is better to use an adverb to indicate how something is said. Sometimes, that is the most economical way to convey something. And the truth is, most readers don’t really care about the occasional adverb, so don’t stress yourself out too much about this unless you know you tend to get really adverb-happy while writing.
But when in doubt, let the dialogue itself—and the surrounding action—make clear how something is said.
Now, because dialogue is a form of action, we can utilize what’s happening to assist what’s being said. This is called an action tag and it offers a character’s physical movements instead of using the word “said.”
This is also something you’ll want to use purposefully—so don’t go overboard and use an action tag in place of every possible “said.” And the reason for this is because every time you use an action, the reader forms a picture in their mind. And if you use too many actions, it will just feel off to the reader. It won’t feel natural or realistic. And in some cases, it can make your dialogue and/or your scene come across as a little melodramatic. For example, if every other line includes dialogue and a character slamming their fist on the table or stomping their feet—you get the idea.
Here’s an example from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins:
I spring up, upsetting a box of a hundred pencils, sending them scattering around the floor.
"What is it?" Gale asks.
"There can't be a cease-fire." I lean down, fumbling as I shove the sticks of dark gray graphite back into the box. "We can't go back."
"I know." Gale sweeps up a handful of pencils and taps them on the floor into perfect alignment.
"Whatever reason Peeta had for saying those things, he's wrong." The stupid sticks won't go in the box and I snap several in my frustration.
"I know. Give it here. You're breaking them to bits." He pulls the box from my hands and refills it with swift, concise motions.
"He doesn't know what they did to Twelve. If he could've seen what was on the ground—" I start.
"Katniss, I'm not arguing. If I could hit a button and kill every living soul working for the Capitol, I would do it. Without hesitation." He slides the last pencil into the box and flips the lid closed. "The question is, what are you going to do?"
I like this example because the action beats reflect the tone of the scene and what the characters are experiencing. You can also see that the author didn’t use overly fancy attributions and/or many adverbs.
So, that’s the first mistake you’ll want to avoid. You will want to avoid using overly fancy attributions, adverbs, and action tags. And the way to avoid making this mistake is really just to keep things simple.
When in doubt, always err on the side of making things crystal clear for your readers so that they have a better chance of immersing themselves in your story and staying immersed long enough to enjoy the journey.
Mistake #2: Asking rhetorical questions through inner dialogue.
The second mistake I see a lot of writers make with their dialogue is that they have their point of view characters asking a lot of rhetorical questions through their inner dialogue. And this is a mistake for three main reasons—1) they don’t offer any insight into your character, 2) they take up space that could be used for other things, and 3) they don't move your story forward.
So, let me quickly clarify the difference between inner dialogue and interiority because this might be confusing.
- Inner dialogue occurs when a character talks to themselves via their own thoughts. It’s usually formatted in italics.
- Interiority is the character speaking within themselves. It’s their thoughts and feelings manifested on the page. It’s how we authors let readers in on what’s happening inside a character’s mind.
Here’s an example of interiority versus inner dialogue, both from The Unmaking of June Farrow by Adrienne Young:
My gaze rose to see the silhouette of a man framed in the window, shoulders squared to the cemetery. Even from here, I could feel those eyes focused on me. But the parking spot where the minister’s car had been an hour ago was now empty. So was the church.
It’s not real, I told myself, tearing my eyes away. There’s nothing there.
The first paragraph contains interiority. It shows what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head as she’s processing the events around her.
The second paragraph contains inner dialogue. The protagonist, June, is speaking to herself inside of her own mind.
In most cases, you’ll see inner dialogue written in italics, which can be a helpful way to remember the difference between interiority and inner dialogue.
Now, let’s explore why asking rhetorical questions isn’t ideal or effective.
First, when your character asks rhetorical questions via their inner dialogue, they’re usually asking things readers already know the character is thinking about. So, in this case, the rhetorical question is repeating information instead of moving the story forward and the pacing slows down.
I often see interiority start here. So for example, a draft may include something like, “Did she really just ask me if I was okay? Was she worried about me?”
And when I see this in a draft that I’m giving feedback on, I’ll encourage the writer to turn these questions into statements. So, for example, we could rewrite those passages to become something like this.
The look on her face went from hopeful to worried in an instant, and I realized my mistake. That was how it had started for Gran—seeing things that weren’t there.
These last two sentences are from The Unmaking of June Farrow by Adrienne Young and what I like about this example is that it’s less wishy-washy than the example with all the questions.
We often hope rhetorical questions will help us create tension and uncertainty in our characters (and therefore our readers), but that’s usually not the case.
Instead, what happens is that the characters become harder to relate to and harder to root for because we don’t actually know what’s underneath the questions they’re asking.
In other words, asking rhetorical questions like this undermines the emotional potential of your scenes. They’re a missed opportunity to go deeper into your character.
There’s usually more emotional depth to what’s underneath the rhetorical question than the questions themselves—and this is what will help you have an impact on readers.
So, although rhetorical questions can be a great starting point for diving deeper into emotions, you don’t want to leave too many of them in your draft.
However, it’s super normal to have rhetorical questions littered throughout your first draft, so don’t be discouraged if you find them as you go back to revise.
Mistake #3: Including too much backstory in your dialogue.
The third mistake I see a lot of writers make with their dialogue is that they include way too much unnecessary information. So, they info-dump through their dialogue. And as a general rule of thumb, we don’t ever want to unload a bunch of information on our readers just to set the stage or to inform them of something.
But sometimes you will need to use dialogue to reveal backstory, and that’s fine as long as it’s done with purpose.
Here’s an example of where it’s done well, again from the novel Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross:
“Do you know that I was going to simply give the position to Kitt after he got his feet wet here?” Zeb continued. “That is, until your essay won the Gazette-in-Winter Competition. Out of the hundreds of essays I sifted through, yours caught my eye. And I thought, Here is a girl who has raw talent, and it would be a shame if I let that slip away.”
Iris knew what came next. She had been working at the diner, washing dishes with muted, broken dreams. She hadn’t once thought the essay she submitted to the Gazette’s annual competition would amount to anything, until she returned home to find a letter from Zeb with her name on it. It was an offer to work at the paper, with the tantalizing promise of columnist if she continued to prove herself exceptional.
It had completely changed Iris’s life.
Zeb lit a cigarette. “I’ve noticed that your writing hasn’t been as sharp lately. It’s been quite messy, in fact. Is there something happening at home, Winnow?”
“No, sir,” she answered, too swiftly.
He regarded her, one eye smaller than the other. “How old are you again?”
There's more to the conversation, but notice how the author breaks up the speech with paragraphs and reactions. It keeps the pace of the scene going while the backstory is delivered. When Zeb speaks, Iris interprets what he’s saying through interiority—and the combination of the dialogue and interiority helps get the reader up to speed on how Iris got her job at the Gazette and things like that.
So, that’s mistake #3 to avoid. You don’t want to include too much backstory or too much information in your dialogue.
If and when you do need to include backstory or information via dialogue, make sure you break it up to keep the pace going and to hold the reader’s attention.
So, there you have it! The 3 most common dialogue mistakes I see writers make and how to avoid them in your writing.
Don’t forget that crafting impactful dialogue takes time—and revision. So, focus on capturing the essence of your characters and story during the drafting process and refine the dialogue as you edit.
Want more tips on writing dialogue? Check out this blog post where I share my top 10 tips for writing stronger, more impactful dialogue in your story.