Five Common Dialogue Mistakes
Dialogue is an important piece of fiction writing. Whether you enjoy writing dialogue or struggle with it, you’ll need it and it will need to be written as well as your narrative.
Dialogue does more than relay a conversation in fiction. Dialogue can:
- Show readers your character’s personality.
- Make your characters feel more real and genuine.
- Help with the flow of your story.
- Move the plot of your story forward.
- Add to the action of your story and hint at what is to come.
Dialogue is easy to read and breaks up your narrative, which helps with the flow of your story. Dialogue can speed up or slow down the pacing of your story. It can pull readers deeper into your story by showing readers more about your characters and the plot, but it needs to be written well.
It can be easy to make mistakes with your dialogue that will have the reverse effect on readers and "pull" them out of your story.
Watch for these common mistakes when writing dialogue.
1. Every character sounds the same.
In the real world, everyone speaks differently. We all have certain words we use or avoid. Some of us are more polite than others. Some of us talk more than others. Some of us speak eloquently and some speak awkwardly. Some of us use longer and more complicated words than others.
This should also be seen with your characters’ dialogue. Making each character sound differently will make them seem more "real" and help show their personalities.
2. Too much detail in the narrative.
Don’t assume that your readers won’t understand your dialogue and you need to "explain" it to them. When you spell out the details, it can be annoying to readers. Readers can pick up on the cues and understand subtext.
Example: "You’re lying to me again!" Holly threw the flowers on the floor and stomped on them. Holly was enraged and sick of Justin’s constant lying.
The last sentence isn’t necessary. Readers know from what Holly said ("You’re lying to me again!") and Holly’s actions (Holly threw the flowers on the floor and stomped on them.) that she is more than upset, and we can guess that Justin has lied to her more than once.
3. Using perfect grammar.
Everyone doesn’t speak with perfect grammar, and your characters shouldn’t either. If it fits the character, then by all means, have them speak that way. However, most people don’t, and if every character speaks with perfect grammar, they all start to sound the same and may come across to readers as being stiff, formal, and pretentious.
It’s okay to have characters say things without perfect grammar.
Example 1: "Me and John went to the movies." vs. "John and I went to the movies."
Example 2: "I’m gonna go to the mall." vs. "I’m going to the mall."
4. Dialogue tags that interfere with flow.
The common dialogue tags are said, asked, and answered. Readers are familiar with seeing these dialogue tags and they don’t stand out. Some writers think the common dialogue tags are boring and they try to spice things up by using different words. This often has the opposite affect and can "pull" readers from the story.
It’s okay to occasionally use a different dialogue tag like whispered, mumbled, bellowed, retorted, or shouted, but try to avoid varying dialogue tags too much. If dialogue tags are too varied, the dialogue tag may receive more focus from the reader than what the character is saying (the part we want them to pay attention to).
Sometimes writers use other dialogue tags because they believe every line of dialogue must have a dialogue tag. This isn’t true. If it is clear who the speaker is, a dialogue tag isn’t always necessary. Another alternative is to use an action beat with the dialogue.
Example: Mark ran into the kitchen. "I can’t find my phone anywhere."
5. Making dialogue too "real."
While dialogue should sound as "real" as possible, sometimes writers go overboard. This is typically seen with too many interruptions in dialogue and too many lines of dialogue in which the character trails off.
Example: "Well, um, I’m not totally sure … Um, actually, I think I’m going to—you know what, I think I will go with you."
While people often do speak this way, showing this too often in dialogue can "pull" readers from the story and make them wonder if your characters are always nervous, lying, or indecisive.
Dialogue can also be made too real with the use of phonetic spellings. Yes, everyone doesn’t pronounce words the same way. Yes, phonetic spelling can give readers an idea of where a character lives, what type of accent a character has, or a character’s education level. However, doing this too often can make it difficult for readers to follow and understand dialogue. Even worse, there is the potential risk of offending readers who might think you are insulting a particular class background, region, or race.
It is better to use fewer instances of phonetic spellings and occasionally use an unusual word order or dialect word to indicate a character’s speech patterns.
Passive Voice: Myths and Facts
Many people have been taught, or convinced, that passive voice should never be used and active voice should always be used. Some people have gone so far as to say there is a "rule" that using passive voice is wrong.
As with many "rules" about writing, this is another one that began as a good general principle and over time morphed into an inflexible rule. The primary underlying reason behind this is that active voice is typically preferred to passive voice as it is often stronger.
Overuse of passive construction is a secondary reason for the "rule." Passive voice is frequently seen by those who are trying to sound formal or academic. It is commonly seen in business, government, and academic writings. It is also used as a way of communicating events and actions without taking or placing blame.
Although active voice is stronger, there are some situations where passive voice is the better choice. Before we can choose when to use active voice and passive voice, we need to understand the difference between the two.
- Passive Voice Defined
- Passive voice is more than using "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) verbs.
- Passive construction occurs when the object of an action is made into the subject of a sentence.
- In the active voice, the subject of a verb acts.
Example: Mark stole the bike.
- In passive voice, the subject is acted upon.
Example: The bike was stolen by Mark.
- In the active voice, the subject of a verb acts.
- When Is Passive Voice Useful?
- When it’s irrelevant who performed the action or your readers don’t need to know who is responsible for the action.
Example: John had been left on the steps of the orphanage fifteen years ago.
- When you don’t want to acknowledge responsibility.
Example: The kitchen had been destroyed.
- To emphasize an object.
Example: The red car (not the blue one) was hit by the snowplow.
- To de-emphasize an unknown subject or actor.
Example: Two dozen cars have been broken into this week.
- For more formal writing in the third person.
Example: It is suggested that …
- How Is Passive Construction Identified?
- Look for parts of the verb "to be" used with another verb; however, keep in mind that the use of "to be" verbs doesn’t always mean passive voice.
- Look for the word by, which is often an indicator of passive voice.
Example: The action was performed by the children.
- Find the verb and ask, "Who or what performed the action?" If the person or thing performing the action is the subject, the sentence is active.
- Evaluate If Passive Voice Should Be Used
- Does it matter who is responsible for the action?
- Is the subject/actor indicated? Should the subject/actor be indicated?
- Do you want to emphasize the object or de-emphasize the subject?
- Would your reader ask for clarification because of an issue related to the use of passive voice?
- When Passive Voice Should Be Avoided
- Active verbs create a sense of action and purpose. Active voice is more lively and dynamic and does a better job of moving your story along. Unless a situation clearly calls for a passive verb, it is suggested that you use active verbs.