9 Common Dialogue Problems—And How to Fix Them

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Learning to write effective, believable dialogue is one of the toughest parts of learning to write narrative — whether fiction or memoir. We don’t want to simply transcribe the way people actually talk, with all the pointless “ums” and stammery filler-things we say in real life. But we also don’t want to write as if all our characters are English professors, speaking in complete sentences composed with perfect grammar.

What we’re looking for is believable dialogue not realistic dialogue. In fiction, we’re usually aiming for believability, not realism.

And dialogue tags! Dialogue tags are probably the biggest problem in newbie writing. Is “said” really invisible?” We want to show a little creativity, but avoid the “Tom Swifty” trap

Here are nine of the most common dialogue problems a new writer has to deal with — with some suggestions on how to fix them.

1) Big Chunks of Dialogue with no Action or Internal Thought

Talking heads are boring. Move the characters around and let them do something or feel something. We need action on the page.

I don’t mean “action” in the action-adventure sense. When Marlene is telling Bob she’s leaving him, he doesn’t have to jump out of a helicopter or stab a villain hiding behind the arras and she doesn’t have to slay a dragon or dance a minuet.

But the two of them need need to do stuff, even if it’s just clenching a fist or getting another beer. And we need to know what’s going on in their heads. Is Bob fighting back a tear? Is Marlene thinking about that little Beretta in her purse?

We don’t need a lot. Just something to give us movement and emotion.

You also don’t want to try to inject emotion with punctuation. Exclamation points are like jalapeno peppers. A few can enrich your work, but they they can easily overwhelm it.

2) Too Much Realism

As I said, realism isn’t the goal. You don’t want to keep an eavesdropping notebook and transcribe normal conversations word for word (although an eavesdropping notebook can give you some great ideas.) But mostly, in real life, people say really boring stuff.

“Hi Bob.”

“‘S’up Marlene?”

“Nothing much.”

“Gonna go to the…?”

“Dunno, you?”


“Gonna, um…?”


This is why we read fiction. It skips the boring bits of real life.

A fiction writer should aim to put “just the good parts” on the page, and that includes leaving out the normal pleasantries that people go through in real conversations.

3) Not Enough Realism

But we need the dialogue to hit a happy medium where it seems authentic.

This is why you should never let one of those AI robots loose on your novel without supervision.

If you use grammar rules for all dialogue, the third-grade dropout will speak as correctly as the lawyer or the librarian. So will the recent immigrant from Uzbekistan and the hairdresser from Queens. They’ll all sound exactly the same, and nobody will make any grammatical mistakes or use any kind of regional colloquialism.

There’s a word for grammatically perfect fiction: unbelievable.

You also have a problem when you let your characters say exactly what they’re thinking.

In real life, people seldom say exactly what they think. If your characters are revealing their souls in dialogue, it needs to be in a therapy session or major heart-to-heart with a significant other.

4) Reader-Feeder Dialogue: As-you-know-Bob

This is when your characters tell each other stuff they already know in order to fill in backstory for the benefit of the reader — aka “as-you-know-Bob” dialogue.

“As you know, Bob, we are in the lair of the Evil Queen who took our sister Marlene hostage after the battle of Curmudgeon and we have been seeking her for twelve long months…”

The writers of those CSI episodes often resort to as-you-know-Bobs to explain the science to the audience. It gets a little comical when two highly trained scientists are explaining to each other the basics of rigor mortis or how to detect cyanide poisoning.

This is another instance where “show-don’t-tell” is not always your friend. You can just tell us. Don’t put it in dialogue.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris