9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue

Dialogue has been my own writing nemesis and I continue to find it a challenge, although each day of writing seems to improve it slightly!

dialogue Today, author and blogger Ali Luke helps us with some basic dialogue mistakes and how to fix them.

Whether you love writing dialogue or dread it, you’ll probably agree it’s an essential part of fiction. Unless you’re writing an experimental short story, you’re going to need to include some dialogue – and it needs to be done just as well as the rest of your writing.

Dialogue has many roles in your story. It can:

  • Reveal character
  • Advance the plot
  • Make characters seem real
  • Give a sense of action unfolding

Dialogue is also easy and fast to read.

It breaks up the page, adding white space and making your story look more attractive. (If you’ve ever seen someone flicking through a novel in a bookstore, there’s a good chance they were looking to see how much narrative vs dialogue that novel contained.)

Unfortunately, dialogue is also easy to get wrong. Whether you’re a new writer or an established one, you’ll want to watch out for these mistakes.

(You can also look out for them in published books, too — plenty of pros still aren’t getting these right. If you come across a great what-not-to-do example, share it with us in the comments.)

Mistake #1: Being Too Formal

Even if you’re a stickler for the finer points of grammar in your prose, real people don’t talk like textbooks. They say things like:

  • Me and him went to the shops.
  • I dunno.
  • If I was you…

Yes, we know that those should technically be:

  • He and I went to the shops.
  • I don’t know.
  • If I were you…

…but most of your characters won’t always talk “correctly.”

There might well be circumstances where you want a character to speak in a precise, correct way – but that gives the reader some very clear signals about this character (perhaps they’re posh, trying very hard to get things right, or a little uptight).

On a similar point, characters shouldn’t speak in long, complicated sentences – or give long speeches. If you’re struggling to “hear” real dialogue as you write, try recording a conversation and listening to how people really talk.


Mistake #2: Being Too Realistic

Some authors, shying away from formality, go too far into making their dialogue real. They pepper every character’s sentences with “ums” and “ers” and hesitations. They have so many interruptions that it’s hard to figure out what’s going on.

This might be a perfect transcript of how real people talk all the time – but it will make your character sound incredibly indecisive and uncertain to your readers:

“Um, I don’t really know if – actually, yes – er, let’s go to the, the park.”

There will be occasions where you want a character to hesitate or fumble their words – but again, keep in mind the signals that this sends the reader. Is your character very nervous, or perhaps lying?

#3: Using Obtrusive Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag is the little phrase that tells the reader who’s speaking, like this:

He said

She asked

I answered

Some writers worry that using “he said” and “she said” all the time will get boring, so they start varying their dialogue tags:

He opined

She screamed

I exclaimed

In general, the simple tags are best – readers barely notice them, except to register who’s speaking. Stick with said, asked, answered and perhaps an occasional whispered, muttered or shouted.

If you do feel you’re overusing dialogue tags, an easy trick is to add a line of action to your dialogue, like this:

Sarah came running down the stairs. “I can’t find it anywhere!”

#4: Using Phonetic Spellings

If you have a character with a strong accent, you might be tempted to indicate this in every line of dialogue they speak.

Tread very lightly here. If you’re peppering your character’s speech with apostrophes and creative spellings, it’s going to make the reader’s life hard. It can also give the inadvertent and unfortunate impression that you’re looking down on or even mocking that character’s region, class background, or race.

Instead of writing words out phonetically, try using occasional dialect words, or unusual word order, to indicate a character’s speech patterns.

#5: Using Character’s Names Too Often

In real life, we don’t tend to use other people’s names all that much when we’re talking to them – even if there are three or four people involved in the same conversation. We might say “Hi, Sue” when they arrive, or “It was great to meet you, John” when they leave – but we don’t use their name every time we address a remark or question towards them.

In fiction, though, you’ll sometimes find characters talking like this:

Hi, Amy. Is there much happening today?

Not much, John. Did you get those figures I needed?

Sorry, Amy, I forgot.

The conversation starts to sound odd and artificial – or even slightly patronizing towards one or both characters.

This problem sometimes arises when authors are trying to avoid using too many dialogue tags. In general, it’s much less intrusive to add in an extra dialogue tag than to constantly have characters addressing one another by name.

#6: Not Including Any Narrative

In #3, I mentioned that one way to avoid overdoing dialogue tags is to include action. You can also do this with a character’s thoughts, like this:

Julie couldn’t stand Mark, but she managed to fake a smile. “Hi. It’s lovely to see you again.”

Or with description, like this:

The pub was dimly lit, but now they were sitting down, Lucy could see the stains on the walls, and the deep scratches in the furniture. She cast around for something to say. “Do you come here often?”

Some writers, though, seem to get into “dialogue” mode and have line after line of dialogue, with no more support than a few dialogue tags. By blending in action and the viewpoint character’s thoughts – not necessarily every line, but at least occasionally – you can enhance the dialogue by adding new levels of meaning.

#7: Having Every Character Sound the Same

We all have different ways of speaking … but sometimes in fiction, authors make all their characters sound exactly alike. This might work if the story is set in a homogenous group – but it sounds silly if some of the characters are teens and others are grandparents.

For each character, you could think about:

  • Any habitual phrases they use. You won’t want to overdo these, but they can be a useful way to cue the reader in that a particular character is speaking.
  • What words they don’t use. Perhaps they never swear, preferring “Oh sugar!” or “Fiddlesticks!” Maybe they tend to avoid long or complicated words.
  • How eloquent they are – or how taciturn they are. Some characters have a way with words; others don’t say much, or say it awkwardly when they do.
  • How polite they are – or not! Do they make requests pleasantly, or do they order other characters around?

#8: Using Indirect Speech Poorly

Not all conversations in your story need to be spelled out in full. Sometimes, you’ll want to give the reader a quick summary – and you can do that with indirect speech. It looks like this:

Tom and Jonathan chatted for a while about the football game they’d seen last night. Beth, bored, went to get another drink.

This is a great way to let the reader know that a conversation is happening, without having to go into any detail.

One mistake here, of course, is to never use indirect dialogue at all, giving a blow-by-blow account of the football game that leaves the reader as bored as Beth. Some writers worry that “show, don’t tell” means they should avoid indirect dialogue – but that’s not the case.

Another problem, though, is when important conversations get summarized in this way:

George had a massive row with his mum, about that letter she’d had from school, and she told him that he was banned from using the X-Box until he’d got his homework done. He told her he hated her, and stormed off upstairs.

In this case, the words exchanged matter – the reader will want to judge whether George is being a horrible child or whether his mother has overreacted, for instance. It’s also a lot more dramatic to hear the words spoken, rather than just read a summary.

#9: Spelling Everything Out in the Narrative

Some writers worry that the reader won’t quite “get” the dialogue, and decide to spell things out, like this:

“I hate you!” George slammed the door and ran upstairs. He was furious with his mum – he felt that she was being unfair.

We don’t need the last sentence here: it’s obvious from what George says (“I hate you!”) and what he does (“George slammed the door and ran upstairs”) than he’s furious, and we can make a fair guess that he thinks his mum is being unfair.

When you spell out what’s happening like this, it’s irritating to the reader: they’re perfectly capable of understanding subtext, and picking up on small cues, to figure out the thoughts and emotions behind what a character says.

Of course, there will be some occasions where you do need to explain what a character is thinking – but this should be the exception, rather than the rule.

Are any of these nine mistakes ones that you know you’re probably making in your own writing?

(I suspect I’ve managed all nine at some point!) Do you have a tenth mistake to suggest? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Ali LukeBio: Ali Luke is the author of Lycopolis, a novel, and Publishing E-Books For Dummies. As well as blogging about writing all around the web, she runs Writers’ Huddle, a community / teaching site for writers. The Huddle is packed with useful resources (with new ones added each month) and is suitable for complete beginners as well as advanced writers. The doors are only open for new members until 12th October, so if you’d like to take your writing to the next level, alongside other like-minded writers, check out the full details today.

Top image: people talking from BigStock

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  1. Robert says

    Robert glanced from one reader to another and back to the list of common mistakes. “I think after two years of writing three seventy five word books, I only need to worry about number seven.” He stretched his right leg until his black safety toe boot pressed against the jeeps driver side floor. “Had two and a half years to prefect my writing skills.”

    A deer emerged from the grove of trees between the jeep and the scrap metal Robert was employed to secure.

    “I would like to add a tenth error that I know that I am guilty of.” Robert said. “its the reason my stories haven’t been published yet. No action for fifty pages. No one dies, no one is arrested or get into a fist fight.” He inhaled deeply. “The most interesting thing that occures is that two of my four lead characters begin developing vie means if showing their lifestyles and addictions to either perceived prejudice due to economic history or addiction to alcohol to escape the cloud of a over achieving father a character is expected to live up to.”

    Robert glanced up from his iPhone to find that it has begun to drizzle and the mine workers have begun their daily chores. “While this sets the mood for the story, only deep story driven readers will keep reading.” He said and shook his head slowly with closed eyes. “The modern era is a playground for the ADD and ADHD. People who often tire of reading history, drama and story without action.”

    The roar of a loader drowned out the musical syphony that the local birds song.

    Robert pressed the button which closed the jeeps drivers side window and pressed his fingers into his ears to protect what remained of his hearing from further damage. “So now I must rewrite the first book so to start it off with action, add in the first third of the book and try to develop the world more slowly.”

    So what do you think?

    • says

      I think you have a lot of potential, but your writing is hard to read. You use complex sentence structures that become hard to follow. You also mixed up your tenses. For example:

      “Robert glanced up from his iPhone to find that it has begun to drizzle and the mine workers have begun their daily chores.”

      You might try something like:

      Robert glanced up from his iPhone. It had begun to drizzle and the mine workers had begun their chores…

      Or for example
      “The roar of a loader drowned out the musical syphony that the local birds song.”

      Might sound better like this:

      The local birds played a symphony, but the roar of the loader drowned them out.

  2. April Counts says

    I liked #3. It also helps with the old nemesis show vs. tell. When I find myself using too many fancy dialogue tags, I look to see if I’m telling the reader what is happening or what the character is feeling. Your example lets the reader imagine that the character is in a hurry, a bit flustered, even possibly out of breath: “Sarah came running down the stairs. “I can’t find it anywhere!” The example didn’t use unnecessary dialogue tags (or adverbs) to tell us these things. So far, I’m getting a lot from your article, and I’m only on #3!

  3. April Counts says

    I am having trouble with #9 in my WIP. My main character is an empath and constantly knows what other people are feeling. Therefore, much of her internal dialogue goes against what you said, “When you spell out what’s happening like this, it’s irritating to the reader: they’re perfectly capable of understanding subtext, and picking up on small cues, to figure out the thoughts and emotions behind what a character says.” I know it’s not exactly what you were referring to, but I am concerned that I am explaining too much. Do you have any suggestions?

  4. kate pomeroy says

    Some of these are very good tips. However, I question the old saw #3, about using “said”, instead of “opined” or “shouted”. Some of my favorite writers use a lot of synonyms for said. Like Robin Cook in “Cure” for example. He uses agreed, questioned, admitted, responded, snapped back, answered smartly, complained, and continued, all between pages 174-179. Lincoln Child, in “Deep Storm”, uses repeated, cried and resumed within two pages (although he usually avoids attributions altogether, which works if the speaker is clear). Robert Ludlam, on page 45 of “Matarese Countdown” uses suddenly shouted, cried, broke in, and acknowledged. Raymond Khoury in “The Sign” uses told, added, reminded, specified, conceded, confirmed, continued, and agreed, all between pages 197-201. Is your tip aimed at such accomplished writers as these??
    It works both ways, of course. Michael Crichton and John Case almost always use said.
    But why this advice if it isn’t even right?

  5. Penny says

    I think “obtrusive” is the key word for #3.
    When writing, my dialog is what matters. I won’t make it compete with telling attributes for the readers attention. It’s my job to make the emotion, tone, and intent clear in the character’s dialog. Not my job to stick in an attribute to explain to readers what the dialog and corresponding action failed to convey. Maybe when I’m rich and famous, I’ll get lazy and give it a try. For now, I want readers to hear the dialog loud and clear without tripping over flashy attributes.
    When reading, I feel kind of condescended to if the writer feels the need to tell me a snarky comment was snapped, a negative comment is a complaint, an answer is a response or reply, or that ongoing dialog is continued. I’m bright enough to figure it out on my own.

  6. Dorothy says

    I have more of a question than a reply.
    Is it OK to have my characters tell the story’s past, present and future as the story unfolds? It would be through their interactive dialog.

  7. E. Blecker says

    In a paragraph can I use different characters speaking by using he said, etc.? Or do I use a different line for each person with dialogue?

  8. Arca says

    Wow! You were so right. I made atleast 5 or six of these mistakes and made all nine at some point but convinced myself it shouldn’t be like that. I need to correct my work and if I may add a big mistake for someone who wants to be a writer. It’s being alkward. By being alkward you leave only a bad taste in your mouth and the readers if you’ve published the book. So one mistake is to make big mistakes.

    • Zouno says

      Almost every thing you mentioned is extremely helpful, especially the mistake# 3. Actually, it was causing me a lot of problems…but reading your indications, I am at ease now.

      Thanks for the post !

  9. Adrian says

    “In general, the simple tags are best – readers barely notice them, except to register who’s speaking. ”

    No, nope and not even close.

    Nothing turns me off from a book as a reader more than unvaried tags. Using the same ‘said’ and ‘answered’ the whole time makes them leap off the page like neon lights and they’re all I can see. To the point where it distracts from what’s actually going on. It gets so bad sometimes I start counting them and by then I’ve lost track of the story.

    Good writing uses more than the basic tags. Nothing too flowery, true, but enough so that they fade into the background as they should instead of standing out like glaring beacons.

    Using just the basics is a sure sign of a lazy writer who can’t be bothered to put in the effort of getting the details right and just wants an easy, formulaic structure they don’t need to think about. Not unexpectedly they’re used by most bad writers.

    • Adrian says

      Oh, it’s gotten to the point where when I’m considering a new book I will actually open it to a random page with lots of dialogue and see if the author has taken the effort to do it right. If all I can see are ‘said’ and ‘answered’ then I put the book down and go find another one from an author who has actually invested some time and effort in their work.

      • says

        I agree absolutely with Adrian. Hemingway is not what’s good. What’s good is what people enjoy. I like elaborate tags if the meaning fits. The more clever the tags, the more entertaining the dialogue.

        Some good writers use plain tags, such as Michael Crichton, and still produce exciting narrative. Other writers use a variety of tags to enhance the mood of the scene. The specific tags an author uses has nothing to do with good writing. Good writing is subtler than that.

        Qualities that make good tags: the meaning must fit the context; the vowel sounds of the tags must resonate with those in the speech; the rhythms of the syllables in the tags must enhance those of the speech; the elements of surprise and unusualness of the tags should vary, with an emphasis on the more ordinary: whether the tags derive from Latin or German roots should vary; the number of syllables in the tags should vary, with an emphasis on single syllables. If attaining these qualities take too much work, by all means just use “said”. Just be sure other features of your writing make up for the lack.

        The rule of thumb about writing is that rules should be followed only 90% of the time.

  10. Nate Hattenburg says

    I think that the “um…” “Er…” Issue is the one out of these 9 that I’ve seen the most. As a writer, though, I feel like it’s kind of a tight space to make between making dialogue to unrealistic and to realistic.
    Also, about the thing about not having everyone talk the same way, I feel like that’s also a challenge because it’s a certain writing style for how you write and that usually includes what people talk like.

    Sorry if I sounded like Sarah Palin in that comment.


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