7+ Common Dialogue Mistakes And How To Avoid Them

I’ve seen my fair share of common mistakes and pitfalls regarding formatting dialogue. These issues can detract from the overall quality of your writing and hinder reader engagement.

In this article, I will identify some of the most common dialogue mistakes and offer solutions for avoiding or correcting them.

๐Ÿ‘‰See our overview guide to writing dialogue for authors

common dialogue mistakes

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how to avoid common dialogue mistakes in writing

1. Incorrect punctuation:

Elmore Leonard, a prolific American novelist, once said, “I try to leave out the parts that readers skip.” This means focusing on the most important aspects of our story and leaving out the part that may detract from the overall experience.

Proper dialogue punctuation is essential for readability and clarity, and incorrect punctuation is certainly a part that readers would prefer to skip.

Here are some key points to remember:

  • Use quotation marks to enclose spoken words.
  • Place punctuation marks (commas, periods, question marks, etc.) inside the quotation marks.
  • Use a comma to separate dialogue tags from the spoken words.

Incorrect: “Are you coming to the party”? Alice asked.
Correct: “Are you coming to the party?” Alice asked.

๐Ÿ‘‰See our list of dialogue punctuation rules for authors

2. Overusing dialogue tags:

This is easily one of the most common dialogue mistakes. While dialogue tags are important for identifying speakers, overusing them can make your writing feel repetitive and stilted.

As author Anton Chekhov rightly said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Rather than simply stating a fact, use sensory details to transport the reader to the scene and create a more immersive experience.

To avoid this mistake:

  • Vary your dialogue tags, using synonyms like “whispered,” “shouted,” or “murmured” when appropriate.
  • Incorporate action beats to show a character’s actions or emotions alongside their dialogue, which can help indicate who is speaking without needing a tag.

“Are you coming to the party?” Alice asked.
“I don’t know,” Bob replied.
“What about you, Carol?” Carol said, “I’ll be there.”

“Are you coming to the party?” Alice asked.
Bob hesitated, rubbing his forehead. “I don’t know.”
Carol grinned. “I’ll be there!”

๐Ÿ‘‰See our list of best dialogue tags other than said

3. Inconsistent character voice:

How you write dialogue can affect the character in your story. Maintaining a consistent and distinct voice for each character is crucial for creating engaging dialogue. Common dialogue mistakes include characters suddenly using vocabulary or speech patterns that don’t align with their established voice. To avoid this pitfall:

  • Develop a unique voice for each character โ€“ consider their background, personality, and motivations.
  • Revisit earlier sections of your story to ensure consistency in character voice.

“Yo, dude, what’s up?” Professor Johnson asked his student. (Professor Johnson is a formal character.)

“Good morning, Mr. Smith. How may I help you today?” Professor Johnson asked his student.

๐Ÿ‘‰See our complete guide on how to write dialogue between two characters

4. Unnatural use of character names:

This is another common dialogue mistake. As author Ernest Hemingway said, “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters.”

In real-life conversations, people rarely use each other’s names so frequently. When writing dialogue, overusing character names can make the conversation sound unnatural. To avoid this issue:

  • Use character names sparingly, only when necessary for clarity or emphasis.
  • Rely on dialogue tags and action beats to help indicate who is speaking.

“Bob, are you coming to the party?” Alice asked.
“Alice, I don’t know,” Bob replied.
“What about you, Carol?”
“Bob, I’ll be there,” Carol said.

“Are you coming to the party?” Alice asked.
“I don’t know,” Bob replied.
“What about you, Carol?”
“I’ll be there,” Carol said.

๐Ÿ‘‰To learn more, see our templated guide on writing dialogue for a novel

5. Lack of variation in sentence structure:

Using the same sentence structure for dialogue can make your writing feel monotonous and dull. This is part of the rules of dialogue writing. To create more engaging dialogue:

  • Vary sentence length and structure to reflect the natural rhythm of speech.
  • Use interruptions, incomplete sentences, or pauses to create a more realistic flow in the conversation.

“I am going to the store,” Alice said.
“I need to buy some groceries,” Bob replied.
“I will come with you,” Carol added.

“I’m heading to the store,” Alice said, grabbing her purse.
“Need some groceries.” Bob nodded.
“Mind if I tag along?” Carol asked.

๐Ÿ‘‰For more insight, see our dialogue writing rules

6. Overuse of exposition in dialogue:

While dialogue can be an excellent tool for delivering information, relying too heavily on it for exposition can result in unnatural, stilted conversations. To avoid this:

  • Distribute exposition throughout the narrative, using dialogue only when it feels organic and natural.
  • Show, don’t tell โ€“ incorporate exposition through action beats, thoughts, and interactions, rather than relying solely on dialogue.

“Did you know, Alice, that Dr. Wilson has been working on a top-secret project for the past five years, involving a groundbreaking new technology that could revolutionize our world?” Bob asked.

Alice caught sight of Dr. Wilson across the room, hunched over his notes.
“What’s he working on, Bob?” she asked.
Bob leaned in, lowering his voice. “Rumor has it, he’s been developing some groundbreaking new technology for the past five years. Could change everything.”

The proportion of dialogue in stories can vary depending on the genre and medium. According to a report , genre novels tend to have a relatively high proportion of dialogue.

However,ย the ideal balance for a story is roughly equal amounts of description and dialogue. For screenplays,ย dialogue should take up 40-60% of the script. Ultimately, a story’s dialogue should be enough to advance the plot, develop characters, and engage the audience.

๐Ÿ‘‰To learn more, read our guide on how to write action beats for authors

7. Failing to differentiate character voices:

When all characters in a story sound the same, it can be difficult for readers to engage with the narrative and differentiate between characters. This is even more problematic in dialogue involving three or more characters.

To create distinct character voices:

  • Develop unique speech patterns, vocabulary, and tone for each character based on background, personality, and experiences.
  • Experiment with accents or regional dialects, but use them sparingly and authentically.

“Are you attending the event this evening?” Alice asked.
“I am considering it,” Bob replied.
“I shall also be present,” Carol added.

“Are you going to the shindig tonight?” Alice drawled.
“Might swing by,” Bob replied with a shrug.
“Indeed, I plan to attend,” Carol said, her tone precise.

๐Ÿ‘‰See our guide on the elements of dialogue writing

8: Overly formal or stilted dialogue:

Realistic dialogue should mimic natural speech, which is often more informal and fluid. Overly formal or stilted dialogue is one of the most common dialogue mistakes. It can distance readers from the characters and story. To create more natural dialogue:

  • Use contractions and informal language, as appropriate for your characters.
  • Allow for sentence fragments, interruptions, and colloquialisms to capture the rhythm and flow of everyday speech.

Overly formal:
“Would you care to accompany me to the cinema this evening?” Alice inquired.
“I regret that I am unable to accept your invitation,” Bob responded.

“Wanna catch a movie tonight?” Alice asked.
“Ah, sorry, can’t make it,” Bob replied.

Final Notes on Common Dialogue Mistakes

In summary, crafting engaging and realistic dialogue is crucial for enhancing the overall quality of your writing. Common dialogue mistakes and pitfalls to avoid include:

  • incorrect punctuation
  • overuse of dialogue tags
  • inconsistent character voice
  • unnatural use of character names
  • lack of variation in sentence structure
  • overuse of exposition in dialogue
  • failing to differentiate character voices, and
  • overly formal or stilted dialogue.

Addressing these common dialogue mistakes can create immersive and compelling conversations between your characters, ultimately enriching your storytelling and captivating your readers.

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