Posts Tagged ‘good dialogue in fiction’

October 16, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Five: Stilted or Unnatural Dialogue


“Wally, let’s go outside and play football,” said Beaver in the boys’ bedroom.

“No, Beav,” Wally said. “I have to do homework.”

“But it is Saturday,” Beaver said. “You don’t have to do homework on Saturdays.”

“That is incorrect, Beav,” Wally said. “I have a big report I must do, and our father said I have to get that done before I do anything else today.”

“Well, Wally, I guess if you cannot go out, I will have to go out and play by myself,” Beaver said.


Are you groaning at this fictitious dialogue between Beaver and Wally? You should be because it’s absolutely awful. If you want to know how NOT to write good dialogue, use this as your prime example.

This is the fifth blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of all kinds of subgenres. Several weeks ago, we started this list and will continue until we’ve done all of what I believe are the most important “common” mistakes. Today we’ll look at “Stilted or Unnatural Dialogue.”

Too much description and narration

Switching viewpoints in the same scene

A negative tone throughout the story

Infallible or underdeveloped characters

Stilted or unnatural dialogue

No significant conflict

Weak transitions between paragraphs

Impossible resolutions


Passive verbs instead of active verbs

Lack of sensory detail

Lack of emotion or action


Let’s analyze the sample of dialogue that started this blog.

First, let’s look at the tags (Wally said/ Beav said) and the beats (none) and see how we can improve the passage. Obviously, there are only two characters in this scene: Beaver and Wally. In such a scene, it’s not necessary to keep repeating “Wally said” and “Beaver said.” (Unfortunately, the early TV shows in the 40s and 50s often had poor script writing like this.) Also, the characters keep saying each other’s names when addressing one another. How boring is that? Once the characters are introduced with their initial dialogue and a tag, the dialogue will flow much smoother by deleting most of the tags and name calling. So what about adding some beats? In fact, what are beats?

Beats are sentences added to a line of dialogue that adds action and detail without using the word said, asked, or any other overused tag. Let’s compare two examples:


“Where are you going?” Ben’s mother asked him.

“Where are you going?” Ben’s mother anchored her fists on her hips, and she scowled.


Now, in sample one, all we know is Ben’s mother wants to know where Ben is going. There’s no sense of any emotion at all. It’s what we’d call “stilted” writing. Most newbie writers would tend to add a sentence after the tag to “tell” how Ben’s mom feels instead of “showing” it.

In sample two, the tag is not there; instead, we have a beat that describes exactly how Ben’s mom feels about him leaving. This sentence clearly “shows” action; it doesn’t “tell” it. This sentence moves the action along beautifully.

Next, let’s look at unnatural dialogue. What’s unnatural dialogue?

It is extremely important for a fiction writer to KNOW his characters, their backgrounds, social temperament, and language colloquialisms. Experienced writers will spend time developing character description files for the main characters in his/her work and get to know those characters almost as if they are real people. Those writers will also study language patterns, listen to folks who resemble their characters, and take lots of notes. They’ll also develop a unique dialogue for each of the main characters so the reader will be able to tell who’s speaking even without a tag or a beat. Each character should have his own style, vernacular, and possibly slang words (if any at all.) There’s nothing that speaks to a beginners’ work that reading dialogue that just doesn’t match the character’s age, sex, ethnicity, social status, or background or reading dialogue of several main characters who all sound exactly the same. Thus, reading an Amish fiction book in which the main character would say, “Hi, dude!” is as ridiculous as reading a book about inner city violence in which one of the street gang members says, “Thank God you are safe.”

In this passage with Beaver and Wally, we have several examples of unnatural dialogue. Let’s look at them:


“But it is Saturday,” Beaver said.

“That is incorrect, Beav,” Wally said. “I have a big report I must do, and our father said I have to get that done before I do anything else today.”

“Well, Wally, I guess if you cannot go out, I will have to go out and play by myself,” Beaver said.


In the first sentence, Beaver said, “But it is Saturday.” In the last sentence, Beaver says, “Well, Wally, I guess if you cannot go out, I will have to go out….” Here are three prime examples of unnatural dialogue that most newbie writers abuse over and over. In natural dialogue, contractions are used, which helps the dialogue to flow much better. We speak contractions in our everyday speech, so why not write them?

In the second sentence, we have two violations. Wally said, “That is incorrect.” Now what kid is going to talk to his brother by saying, “That is incorrect.” As a teenager, Wally would probably say, “As usual, you’re wrong” or maybe another smart remark.

The other violation in this second sentence is when Wally calls his dad “our father.” Sheesh, he’s not praying! What would a teenager call his father? Dad? Pop? Hopefully not “The Old Man,” unless the writer is portraying a rebellious child.

All right, we’ve shown what not to do with dialogue. Let’s rewrite this passage and see how we can improve it and make it flow much better and keep the reader’s interest:


“Wally, let’s go outside and play football,” Beaver said in the boys’ bedroom.

“No,” Wally said. “I have to do homework.”

“But it’s Saturday. You don’t have to do homework on Saturdays.”

“Wrong, little brother.” Wally flopped on his bed with his notebook and pen. “I have a big report to do, and Dad said I have to get that done before I do anything else today.”

“Well, I guess if you can’t go out, I’ll have to play by myself.” Beaver grabbed his football and hurried out the door.


There you have the finished product, revised with most of the tags deleted and two beats and contractions added. Now we have natural dialogue that flows and is quite believable.

So what do you think? Which dialogue about Wally and Beaver would you rather read?

Next time, we’ll discuss No Significant Conflict. Happy writing!

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