6 Dialogue Habits that are Killing Your Story

6 Dialogue Habits that are Killing Your Story | These 6 dialogue habits might be killing your story. Learn what they are and how to avoid them. A must read for writers who can’t seem to get their dialogue right.

Dialogue can be tough to write, but it can tougher to read. These common dialogue habits might be killing your story.

 1. “Talking Head” syndrome

What’s the problem?

“Talking Head” syndrome is exactly what it sounds like: when you reduce your characters to nothing more than talking heads by not balancing dialogue with thought, action or description.

‘Was there any mail?’
‘Just bills. Oh, and this.’
‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know, open it. I think it’s a birthday card.’
‘For me? My birthday isn’t until next week.’

It’s difficult for a reader to imagine a scene when, well, there’s no scene. There’s nothing happening here for me to picture. There’s nothing grounding the characters in the scene; there’s nothing grounding the reader in the scene. If there’s nothing grounding the reader in the scene, they’re going to zone out and your book won’t be read.

How do I fix it?

Believe it or not, characters can actually do things other than talk while they talk. You don’t need to add action to every line, but you do need to write a scene.

The front door closed and Mike could hear Sally’s footsteps coming down the hall.
‘Was there any mail?’ he called out.
She rounded the corner and came into the kitchen shuffling the envelopes in her hands. ‘Just bills. Oh, and this.’
‘What is it?’
She frowned at the envelope in her hand, shrugged, and tossed it onto the table in front of him. ‘I don’t know, open it,’ she said. ‘I think it’s a birthday card.’
Mike frowned, putting down his mug of coffee to pick up the envelope. ‘For me? My birthday’s not until next week.’

You can eliminate action and thought from an exchange of short sentences to avoid bogging the conversation down with every little movement, but this can’t go for more than a few lines at a time before it starts to sound like the characters have decided to freeze while delivering their lines.

If you’re not quite sure how to incorporate action into a conversation, watch TV (whoever says watching TV isn’t good for writers is lying). Take note of what people and characters do while talking and practise writing it.

*Special Note*
What I’m about to harp on about isn’t quite Talking Head syndrome but it has the same effect of making it seem like the characters don’t exist in a physical space and it makes me cringe to read: wordy introductions.

‘Nice to meet you, Frank. Let me introduce to to my group. This string bean on my left, that’s Mike. That woman over there sitting at the table, that’s Sally. And I’m Percy.’

The problem with this is that these four people are all in the same room and Percy could introduce his friends to Frank by looking and gesturing to them and saying their names. Instead, he provides a geographic description of where they are as if Frank couldn’t actually see them because he’s not involved in a scene, just a conversation.

‘Nice to meet you, Frank. This is Mike and Sally,’ Percy said, gesturing to his friends. ‘I’m Percy.’

Much better, right?

2. Keeping it too real

What’s the problem?

When giving tips about dialogue, we writers and editors often advise writers to make it sound realistic, but we don’t mean that literally. Your dialogue should sound like it’s a conversation real people would have, but it shouldn’t mimic real speech patterns.

‘Hey, Mike. Gosh, it’s been a long time,’ said Sally, embracing her old friend.
‘You’re damn right, Sally. Or can I call you Sal?’
‘Oh, um, Sal’s fine, Mike. Either is fine, really. So how was your trip?’
‘Uh, okay I guess. The food was terrible.’
‘Well that sounds horrible!’

I can’t say anything about this other than it’s boring and I struggled to write it. Our daily conversations involve small talk, pleasantries, stammers, stutters and hesitations. And none of that is thrilling. When I read dialogue like this, it isn’t long before I give up on the book.

How do I fix it?

Eliminate or summarise anything that doesn’t contribute to the plot or characterisation. Most ‘um’s and ‘uh’s can be cut (unless they serve a purpose, e.g. I use them occasionally when my characters are being sarcastic). Names don’t need to be said that often. Use hesitations and stammers sparingly. Establish accents, stutters and the like and then use them sparingly. Readers aren’t interested in small talk or pleasantries, so get them over with asap.

Sally embraced her old friend. It had been so long since she’d seen him. They pulled away and exchanged pleasantries before finding a spare table at the cafe.

3. Dialogue blocks

What’s the problem?

Unless we’re making a speech, people rarely stand up and spew words for sentences and sentences and sentences. When characters do this, it becomes a little like Talking Head syndrome, where the scene around the character starts to dissolve because they aren’t interacting with it.

‘Why would someone send an early birthday card?’ Mike asked.
‘There could be a few reasons. Maybe they forgot what day your birthday is and sent it early to be on the safe side. Maybe they do know, but didn’t want to forget in a few days. It could be that they just don’t trust the mail system and wanted to make sure you got the card in time for your birthday. I’m more inclined to believe that they just didn’t know when they’d be able to post it over the next week, so they decided to send it early.’

*by which time Mike has already opened the card, read it, made a fresh cup of coffee and mowed the lawn.*

I see this a lot when characters are trying to describe plot information to other characters, but it completely destroys my interest in whatever plot they’re trying to contribute to.

How do I fix it?

Similar to tackling Talking Head syndrome, break up those blocks with action or, wait for it, conversation! Sally’s talking to Mike, but Mike got so bored he just left. He could have had a place in this conversation.

Similar to avoiding dialogue that’s too realistic, cut the crap. Also, make it more realistic. People don’t generally speak in essays, so read the block aloud to see what sounds like a robot and condense the dialogue to make it sound like something a person would say.

‘Why would someone send an early birthday card?’ Mike asked, frowning at the envelope as if he suspected foul play.
Sally slumped into a chair next to him and grinned at his reaction to it. ‘Sometimes people do that. In case it doesn’t come in time or they can’t post it in time or something.’

4. Meaningless banter

What’s the problem?

Some banter is cute only to the people involved. When it’s snappy one-liners it’s totally fine because it’s funny and witty, but when it’s stuff like this:

‘Maybe they just wanted to make sure they didn’t miss your birthday,’ said Sally. ‘But the more logical conclusion is that it’s definitely a bomb. In fact, I can hear it ticking. I’m going outside, if you don’t mind.’
Mike scowled at her playfully. ‘Meanie,’ he said.
‘I know you are but what am I?’ Sally retorted.
‘Why are you so mean to me?’
‘You know you love me.’
‘Shut up.’

This doesn’t sound realistic for anyone who isn’t twelve, yet I’ve recently read something similar happen between a seventeen-year-old and a twenty-year-old. It set my teeth on edge. It’s not fun. It’s childish, and there are much more interesting ways to establish that a character is childish than dialogue that could be removed and make no difference to the story (apart from making it better).

How do I fix it?

‘Maybe they just wanted to make sure they didn’t miss your birthday,’ said Sally. ‘But the more logical conclusion is that it’s definitely a bomb. In fact, I can hear it ticking.’
Mike scowled at her playfully. ‘Sure that’s not just the tumbleweed tossing around your empty skull?’

If you’re going to include banter, it has to be something the reader, as the invisible member of this conversation, can enjoy.

5. The various problems with dialogue tags

What’s the problem?

  • Avoiding said at all costs is distracting and doesn’t flow well

‘Was there any mail?’ Mike yelled.
‘Only bills,’ Sally replied. ‘Oh, and this,’ she cried.
‘What is it?’ Mike asked.
‘I don’t know, open it,’ Sally whispered.

  • Using adverbs to describe how something is said when there’s a perfectly good verb that means the same thing causes the writing to sound dull

‘Was there any mail?’ Mike said loudly. instead of ‘Was there any mail?’ Mike yelled/shouted.

‘I don’t know, open it,’ Sally said quietly. instead of ‘I don’t know, open it,’ Sally whispered.

  • Using descriptive speech tags when it’s already clear how something is being said is a waste of time

‘It’s a birthday card!’ Mike shouted excitedly.

How do I fix it?

  • There’s nothing wrong with using said. Other than telling them who’s talking, said is mostly invisible to the reader.
  • If you realise you’ve used an adverb, try to find a verb that could replace it.
  • If you use action, punctuation or a verb that suggests how something was said, you don’t need a descriptive tag.
  • Sometimes you don’t need to use a tag at all.
  • Incorporate all four points (said; specific verb; action and punctuation; no tag) to keep your writing from sounding repetitive.

Some people will tell you to use descriptive dialogue tags and others will tell you there's nothing wrong with said. Both are true, but when do you follow the former and when do you follow the latter? Follow the link for more fiction writing mistakes and how to avoid them.

6. No contractions

What’s the problem?

(This is my favourite). I can’t stand it when characters don’t use contractions. This might be a thing when someone hasn’t been speaking English long enough to be familiar with contractions, but shouldn’t be a thing when your story is set in a fantasy realm or different time period (as if contractions haven’t existed for centuries), let alone when it’s set in the present. We use contractions when we talk. Simple as that. When a character doesn’t use contractions, they sound uptight and pretentious and the prose sounds stilted and dull.

Even if you think it would be more realistic for your character to use contractions in a fantasy or historic setting, fiction isn’t real. Readers are going to forgive you for doing something as innocuous as combining words if it makes your book easier to read. Readers won’t notice when your characters use contractions, but they will notice (and not in a good way) when they don’t.

The only exceptions are when someone is trying to sound deliberately formal, or they’re separating a contraction so that they can emphasise a single word of it.

How do I fix it?

Use contractions.

6 Dialogue Habits that are Killing Your Story | These 6 dialogue habits might be killing your story.  Head over to jackalediting.com for the full article, and more great writing tips from a freelance book editor!


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