Monday, April 22, 2013


by Isabo Kelly

A friend and editor once told me that we all get one “easy” thing in writing and the rest of the craft we have to struggle with to get right. My easy thing is Dialogue. The problem with having something come easy to you, though, is that you forget you still have to develop the skill so it will grow with the rest of your writing. I had two books published before an editor started calling me out on my dialogue mistakes. Imagine the horror.

What do you mean I need to fix my dialogue? Dialogue is supposed to be my easy thing. I’m not supposed to have to work at it! Wrong. Like it or not, we have to work on all the elements of our fiction, all the time. During this learning process, I discovered a few common mistakes made by authors of every level.

Here are five problems to look out for in writing dialogue:

1. Using characters’ names in dialogue all the time.
Listen to two people talk and you’ll notice you rarely hear them refer to each other by name. Whole conversations can be carried on without either person saying the full name of the other. Nicknames or pet names may come up, but rarely full names. The level of acquaintance between the two people will influence this, with people new to each other more likely to use names than people who’ve known each other for decades. But frequently in written dialogue, authors have characters constantly referring to each other by name: sometimes for dramatic effect, sometimes to make clear who’s speaking, sometimes because it seemed like a good idea at the time. This was one of the first things I got called out on. When you’re editing your stories, cut out as many uses of names in the dialogue as possible. This will not only tighten your prose, it will make the flow of the dialogue more realistic for your reader.

2. Not making the voices of your characters distinctive enough.
When done well, entire passages of written conversation with no dialogue tags can be read and the reader will still know who is speaking. Do all your characters—particularly your hero and heroine—sound alike? Do many of them use the same turns of phrase despite very different backgrounds? Try removing the tags and letting someone else read the dialogue. Can they tell who’s speaking? If they can’t, you need to work on making the voices clearer. Pay attention to word choice and turns of phrase that are unique to your character to help give them their individual voice. Subtle changes can make all the difference.

3. Forgetting that dialogue is not the same as a real life conversation.
This happens frequently, but it’s important to bear in mind that dialogue is NOT conversation. In conversation, we pause a lot, we use a lot of “em’s” and “um’s”, and we don’t always form coherent and understandable sentences. If you try to translate this directly into written dialogue, it never reads right. Dialogue has to make sense, it has to flow, and it has to be somewhat coherent. The trick is to make dialogue sound realistic without making it “real.” Avoid excessive stutters, interruptions and dropped sentences. Have your characters say what they mean to say.

4. Not using contractions.
Even if your characters are upper crust, even if they’re historical figures, humans use contractions when they talk. Leaving them out of dialogue will make your characters sounds stiff and unrealistic—and it’ll drive readers like me nuts. It’s tempting, particularly when you’re writing characters who are more formal in countenance, to have them say things like, “I will not have coffee.” But people don’t talk like this. Even a formal turn of phrase will sound more like, “I’ll not have coffee.” A more realistic way of saying this for a modern reader is, “I won’t have coffee.” The only time to use the full “will not” rather than “won’t” is when you want to add emphasis to the “not.” And if you’re using contractions regularly, when you do have a character say, “I will not have coffee”, the reader will know the character is placing that emphasis for a reason (like they’re pissed off at the person offering, or maybe they know there’s poison in the coffee).

5. Using dialogue to convey information.
Here’s the tricky part—sometimes dialogue is a great way to convey information, especially when you have characters discussing topics that are new to one or the other of them. The mistake in this technique arises when characters are conveying information they both already know.

“As you are well aware, Jane, I’ve just crashed my car into our front window, in the house we’ve lived in for the last fifteen years and where our children grew up.”

“Why yes, Stan. And as you know, we don’t have insurance on either the car or house to cover this accident, which is exactly like that incident last week when you ran over the neighbor’s award-winning roses worth half a million dollars.”
  Dialogue should be pertinent to the situation, and if it’s conveying information, the information needs to be new to at least one person in the conversation.

“Stan, honey, will our insurance cover the wreck you just made of our front window?”

“Uhm, no. Insurance company dropped us after I ran over the neighbor’s fancy flowers. Said I’m a high risk driver.”

“I wonder where they got that idea.”

Great dialogue will make your novels sparkle, bring your characters to life, and help your readers fall in love. Bad dialogue will make them throw your book against a wall. Watch out for these five common mistakes, and you’ll have your readers flipping pages to the very end.♥

For more on Isabo Kelly and her books, visit her at, follow her on Twitter @IsaboKelly or friend her on Facebook This article was first printed in RWA/NYC newsletter, Keynotes.

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