Fiction Writing Made Easy

#114: 3 Common Dialogue Mistakes (And How To Fix Them)

October 31, 2023 Savannah Gilbo Episode 114
#114: 3 Common Dialogue Mistakes (And How To Fix Them)
Fiction Writing Made Easy
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Fiction Writing Made Easy
#114: 3 Common Dialogue Mistakes (And How To Fix Them)
Oct 31, 2023 Episode 114
Savannah Gilbo

“Dialogue is a form of action. We can utilize what's happening around the dialogue to assist what's being said.” - Savannah Gilbo


Today, I'm thrilled to talk about the intricate art of dialogue with you once more. We're going to explore three common pitfalls that often lurk in dialogue and learning how to navigate these challenges can truly elevate your storytelling. Here’s a preview of what’s included:

[02:34] Savannah explains the meaning of attributions and what to do when you doubt if something being said is clear to the reader.


[06:55] Reading a snippet from “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins and why it is a great example of keeping attributions simple.


[11:27] Why asking rhetorical questions undermines the emotional potential of your scenes. 


[14:15] The value of not including too much backstory or too much information in your dialogue.

Links mentioned in this episode:




Want a behind the scenes look at my book coaching journey? Click here to download Author Accelerator's brand-new eBook to see how I built (and grew!) my editing and coaching business!

Support the Show.

Looking for a transcript? If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, scroll down below the episode player until you see the transcript.

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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

“Dialogue is a form of action. We can utilize what's happening around the dialogue to assist what's being said.” - Savannah Gilbo


Today, I'm thrilled to talk about the intricate art of dialogue with you once more. We're going to explore three common pitfalls that often lurk in dialogue and learning how to navigate these challenges can truly elevate your storytelling. Here’s a preview of what’s included:

[02:34] Savannah explains the meaning of attributions and what to do when you doubt if something being said is clear to the reader.


[06:55] Reading a snippet from “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins and why it is a great example of keeping attributions simple.


[11:27] Why asking rhetorical questions undermines the emotional potential of your scenes. 


[14:15] The value of not including too much backstory or too much information in your dialogue.

Links mentioned in this episode:




Want a behind the scenes look at my book coaching journey? Click here to download Author Accelerator's brand-new eBook to see how I built (and grew!) my editing and coaching business!

Support the Show.

Looking for a transcript? If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, scroll down below the episode player until you see the transcript.

Speaker 1:

Almost always, the tone of the scene and the words the character uses should tell the reader how those words are being spoken. So instead of grabbing a thesaurus, I'd rather see you default to working harder at making the words and the action in any given scene more vivid. However, there are caveats to this as well. Okay, so sometimes it is better to use an adverb to indicate how something is said. Sometimes that really is the most economical way to convey something. Welcome to the fiction writing made easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilbo and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming, so each week, I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started. In today's episode, we're going to talk about three common dialogue mistakes and how to avoid making them in your draft. I'm excited to talk about this topic today because I did another episode recently about writing dialogue. It was episode number 104 and it was called 10 Tips for Writing Better Dialogue in your Story, and I got so much good feedback on that episode. This is definitely a topic that you, my lovely listeners, want to hear more about, so I'm very excited to be back with another episode on dialogue Now. If you haven't heard the episode I mentioned, it's number 104. I will link to it in the show notes, but it's a great companion piece to today's episode, so I highly recommend you check it out. Now, like I mentioned, we're going to talk through three common dialogue mistakes that I see in the draft site edit. So this isn't an exhaustive list of things to keep an eye out for, of course, but they are the three most common mistakes I see, and if you pair what you learn in this episode with what I go over in episode number 104, that will definitely take your dialogue to the next level, which will greatly improve the quality of your story. So, without further ado, let's dive into the three most common dialogue mistakes I see in the draft site edit and how to avoid making these mistakes in your own draft.

Speaker 1:

The first mistake I see a lot of writers make with their dialogue is that they use overly fancy attributions, adverbs and or action tags, or they go the complete opposite route and omit these things all together. So let's dig into all of that, starting with attributions. What are attributions? Well, attributions exist to let the reader know who is speaking. So this is where you'll have a line of dialogue, and then you let the reader know who just spoke. That line of dialogue, so hello, said Jane, right? So it's just letting the reader know who is speaking at any given time.

Speaker 1:

And many writers are under the incorrect impression that using the word said as an attribution is not creative enough, and therefore they end up driving themselves crazy trying to figure out ways not to use the word said in their writing, which is almost always a mistake. And the thing we need to understand is that readers don't really notice the word said as much as you think they do. It's almost like an invisible word that helps you, the author, keep things crystal clear for the reader. Now, of course, that being said, it is possible to use the word said in an abusive fashion, but more often than not, I see writers leaving it out or using quote, unquote, fancier words to get something across instead. Now, on occasion, you might need to use substitute words for said. So, for example, you could use something like whispered or growled or spat, but you do want to be careful with this.

Speaker 1:

Almost always, the tone of the scene and the words the character uses should tell the reader how those words are being spoken. So instead of grabbing a thesaurus, I'd rather see you default to working harder at making the words and the action in any given scene more vivid. However, there are caveats to this as well. Okay, so sometimes it is better to use an adverb to indicate how something is said. Sometimes that really is the most economical way to convey something, and the truth is, most readers don't really care about the occasional use of adverbs. So I don't want you to stress yourself out too much about this, unless, let's say, you know that you tend to get really adverb happy while you write. Okay, but when in doubt, I just want you to let the dialogue itself and the surrounding action make clear for the reader how something is being said and how that tone is in the scene.

Speaker 1:

Now, because dialogue is a form of action, we can utilize what's happening around the dialogue to assist what's being said. This is called an action tag and it's often a character's physical movement and it can replace the word said. This is also something you will want to use purposefully. So don't go overboard and use an action tag in place of every possible said. And the reason for this is because every time you do use an action, the reader forms a picture in their mind, right? And if you use too many actions, it's going to feel off to the reader, it's not going to feel natural or realistic and in some cases, it can make your dialogue and or your scene come across a little melodramatic. So, for example, I see this happen in drafts a lot, where every other line includes dialogue and a character slamming their fists on the table or stomping their feet or shouting or whatever. It is right, you get the idea. Now I wanted to show you an example of where this is done. Well, so I'm going to read you a snippet from Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, so one of the Hunger Game books, and you can just see how she has woven action throughout the dialogue to help set the scene and the tone. Okay, so I'm just going to read this to you.

Speaker 1:

I spring up upsetting a box of 100 pencils, sending them scattered around the floor. What is it? Gail asks there can't be a ceasefire. I lean down, fumbling as I shove the sticks of dark gray graphite back into the box. We can't go back. I know. Gail sweeps up a handful of pencils and taps them onto the floor in perfect alignment. Whatever reason Pita had for saying those things, he's wrong. The stupid sticks won't go in the box and I snap several in my frustration. I know, give it here. You're breaking them to bits. He pulls the box from my hands and refills it with swift, concise motions. He doesn't know what they did to 12. If he could have seen what was on the ground. I start, katniss, I'm not arguing. If I could hit a button and kill every living soul working for the capital, I would do it without hesitation. He slides the last pencil into the box and flips the lid closed. The question is what are you going to do Now?

Speaker 1:

I like this example because the action beats reflect the tone of the scene and what the characters are experiencing and feeling. You can also see that the author didn't use overly fancy attributions and or too many adverbs to get her point across. So, with all that being said, that's the first mistake you'll want to avoid. You will want to avoid using overly fancy attributions, adverbs and or action tags, and the way to avoid making this mistake is really just to keep things simple. So, when in doubt, always err on the side of making things crystal clear for your readers, so they have a better chance of immersing themselves in your story and staying immersed long enough to enjoy the journey.

Speaker 1:

The second mistake I see a lot of writers make with their dialogue is that they have their point of view characters asking a lot of rhetorical questions through their inner dialogue, and this is a mistake for three main reasons. So, number one, rhetorical questions don't offer any insight into your character. Number two, they take up space that could be used for other, more meaningful things. And three, they don't move your story forward. So before we go any further, let me just quickly clarify the difference between inner dialogue and interiority, because this might be confusing. So inner dialogue occurs when a character talks to themselves via their own thoughts, and it's usually formatted in italics.

Speaker 1:

Interiority is the character speaking within themselves, so it's their thoughts and their feelings manifested on the page, and it's how we, as authors, let readers in on what's happening inside that character's mind. So, as an example of interiority versus dialogue, I want to read you a snippet from the Unmaking of June Farrow by Adrienne Young. So here it is. My gaze rose to the silhouette of a man framed in the window, shoulders squared to the cemetery. Even from here I could feel those eyes focused on me. But the parking spot where the minister's car had been an hour ago was now empty. So was the church. It's not real, I told myself, tearing my eyes away. There's nothing there. So the first paragraph in this example contains interiority. It shows what's going on inside the protagonist's head as she's processing the events around her. The second paragraph, where she says it's not real, there's nothing there. This is inner dialogue. So the protagonist, june, is speaking to herself inside of her own mind. Now, like I mentioned, in most cases you'll see inner dialogue written in italics, which can be a helpful way to remember the difference between interiority and inner dialogue.

Speaker 1:

Now let's explore why asking rhetorical questions isn't ideal or effective. So first, when your character asks rhetorical questions via their inner dialogue, they're usually asking things readers already know the character is thinking about. So in this case, the rhetorical question is repeating information instead of moving the story forward, and the pacing is going to slow down. In the drafts I edit, I often see interiority start here. So the writer will want to include interiority, and the way it manifests is through these kind of rhetorical questions. So, for example, a draft I'm editing might include something like did she really just ask me if I was okay? Is she worried about me, right? So it's the character kind of asking these questions that they're not really looking for answers to, right? They're just kind of asking as a way to start translating thoughts to the reader.

Speaker 1:

Now, when I see this in a draft that I'm giving feedback on, I will encourage the writer to turn these questions into statements. So, for example, I would suggest rewriting those passages to become something like this the look on her face went from hopeful to worried in an instant and I realized my mistake. That was how it had started, for grand seeing things that weren't there. So these last two sentences are from the Unmaking of June Pharaoh by Adrian Young, and what I like about this example is it's a lot less wishy-washy than the example with the questions. So we often hope that these rhetorical questions will help us create tension and uncertainty in our characters and therefore our readers, but that's usually not the case. Instead, what ends up happening is that the characters end up feeling harder to relate to and harder to root for, because we don't actually know what's underneath the questions they're asking. So we need more context, kind of like I gave you in the example.

Speaker 1:

Another way of looking at this is that asking rhetorical questions undermines the emotional potential of your scenes. So when you ask a lot of them, there's a missed opportunity to go deeper into your character, and usually there's more emotional depth to what's underneath the rhetorical question than the questions themselves can offer. And this is what's going to help you have an impact on your readers. So, although rhetorical questions can be a great starting point for diving deeper into your characters and into their emotions, you don't want to leave too many of them in your draft. However, it's super normal to have a lot of rhetorical questions littered throughout your first draft, so don't be discouraged if you find them as you go back and revise. If you find that there are some, just ask yourself how you can flip those questions into statements and your draft will be a lot stronger for it.

Speaker 1:

The third mistake I see a lot of writers make with their dialogue is that they include way too much unnecessary information. So essentially, they info dump through their dialogue and, as a general rule of thumb. We don't ever want to be unloading a bunch of information on our readers just to set the stage or to inform them of something right. But sometimes you will need to use dialogue to reveal backstory or information, and that's fine as long as it's done with purpose. And this is from Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross, so I'm just going to read it to you. Do you know that I was going to simply give the position to Kit after he got his feet wet here? Zeb continued, that is until your essay won the Gazette in Winter competition. Out of the hundreds of essays I sifted through, yours caught my eye and I thought here's a girl who has raw talent and it would be a shame if I let that slip away.

Speaker 1:

Iris knew what came next. She had been working at the diner washing dishes with muted, broken dreams. She hadn't once thought the essay she submitted to the Gazette's annual competition would amount to anything until she returned home to find a letter from Zeb with her name on it. It was an offer to work at the paper with the tantalizing promise of columnist if she continued to prove herself exceptional. It had completely changed Iris' life.

Speaker 1:

Zeb lit a cigarette. I've noticed that your writing hasn't been as sharp lately. It's been quite messy in fact. Is there something happening at home, wino? No, sir, she answered too swiftly. He regarded her one eye smaller than the other. How old are you again?

Speaker 1:

Now there's more to this conversation, but I want you to notice how the author breaks up the speech with paragraphs and reactions, so all of this keeps the pace of the scene going while the backstory is delivered. When Zeb speaks, iris interprets what he's saying through her interiority, and the combination of the dialogue and the interiority helps the reader get up to speed on how Iris got her job at the Gazette and things like that. So that's mistake number three to avoid. You don't want to include too much backstory or too much information in your dialogue. Instead, if and when you do need to include backstory or information via your dialogue, make sure you just break it up to keep the pacing going and to hold the reader's attention. And those are the three most common dialogue mistakes I see, as well as how to fix them. If you want to review any of the examples that I read during this episode, you can go to the blog post that's listed in the show notes and see those written out, which might be a little more helpful Now, before I let you go, let me quickly recap what we went over.

Speaker 1:

So the first mistake I see a lot of writers make is that they're not going to be able is that they use overly fancy attributions, adverbs and or action tags in their dialogue, or they go the complete opposite route and omit these things altogether. And to avoid this mistake, you'll really just want to keep things simple and, when in doubt, err on the side of making things clear for your readers so they can fully immerse themselves in your story and stay with you all the way from page one to the end. The second mistake I see a lot of writers make with their dialogue is that they have their point of view, character asking way too many rhetorical questions through their inner dialogue. So if you've been making this mistake, or if you have a draft full of rhetorical questions, you can just take the rhetorical questions and turn them into statements. So don't let your character get away with being too neutral. Instead, show the reader how they're interpreting what they're really asking about, or how they're feeling about what they're really asking.

Speaker 1:

And then, finally, mistake number three is that sometimes writers include too much information or too much backstory in their dialogue. So they essentially info dump through their dialogue, and the best way to avoid this is to, of course, only include what's relevant to the senior writing, but also if and when you do need to include backstory or information via your dialogue. Just make sure to break it up to keep the pace going and to hold the reader's attention. Now, like I mentioned in the opening, if you are aware of these three mistakes to avoid and if you go back and listen to episode number 104, that includes 10 tips for writing stronger dialogue everything you learn across both of the episodes will definitely take your dialogue to the next level, which will make your draft stronger. So I highly encourage you to become a student of dialogue. Listen to these two episodes, study the dialogue in the books that you like and ask how and why is it working or what is the author doing to have the effect that they're having on you and things like that, and you'll be surprised at how much learning how to write stronger dialogue can affect the quality of your draft and how it can make you a stronger, more efficient writer. So that's it for today's episode.

Speaker 1:

As always, thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you want to check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them in the show notes listed in the description of each episode inside your podcast player or at savannahgilbocom forward slash podcast. If you're an Apple user, I'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to and, in turn, your reviews will help this podcast get in front of more fiction writers just like you. And while you're there, go ahead and hit that follow button, because there's going to be another brand new episode next week, full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer. So I'll see you next week and until then, happy writing.

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