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Stilted Dialogue (Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes)

#8 Stilted Dialogue

When you were a child, did you color outside the lines? Or maybe you were like me and kept your crayons within bounds. You might even have outlined the picture so your shading would more readily stay where it should. Welcome to the world of the meticulous.

When it comes to writing rules, you go the extra mile. Perish the thought that you would split an infinitive, abuse a participle, or indulge in passive voice. All of this attention to detail nets you some precise prose and a few evil eyes in your writing critique group.

Dialogue writing is a different matter, altogether. Rules don’t necessarily save you and can even stand in the way. People just don’t dot their ‘i’s’ and cross their ‘t’s’ when they speak. When writing dialogue, we are dealing with humanity in all its imperfections.

That’s good for us.

Example of Stilted Dialogue

I’ll borrow the dialogue I wrote for Dialogue Writing Mistake #7: Creating Talking Heads for today’s example.

Here’s the stilted version:

“My daughter is stuck in the tree!” Mary  pulled Gabriel off the porch step and into her yard.

He glanced up, then whistled through his teeth, already pulling his mailbag off his shoulder. How on earth could a toddler climb that high?

“I hope that you will help her, please.” Mary’s words came in short bursts, and her fingers moved convulsively on his arm.

“Why don’t you call the fire department?”

“There is no time. She could fall at any moment.”

He hesitated. Nowhere in his post office training had handling such a situation been remotely discussed. “Do you have a ladder I can use?”

A scream pulsed through the air, and the mailbag slipped from his fingers. “Hold on, princess!”

The more natural version:

“My daughter is stuck in the tree!” Mary  pulled Gabriel off the porch step and into her yard.

He glanced up, then whistled through his teeth, already pulling his mailbag off his shoulder. How on earth could a toddler climb that high?

“Help her, please.” Mary’s words came in short bursts, and her fingers moved convulsively on his arm.

“Call the fire department.”

“No time. She could fall any moment.”

He hesitated. Nowhere in his post office training had handling such a situation been remotely discussed. “Do you have a ladder?”

A scream pulsed through the air, and the mailbag slipped from his fingers. “Hang on, princess!”

Can you see how using sentence fragments improves the pacing and makes the characters more believable?

What Causes Stilted Dialogue?

We fall into the trap of writing stilted dialogue when we focus on being grammatically correct at the expense of characterization and pacing.

Basically, we are trying too hard.

Overcoming Stilted Dialogue

  • Never write dialogue without fully imagining the scene and ‘hearing’ your characters speak.
  • Listen to the conversations around you to get a feel for the way people talk in fragments.  Take notes, if you need to.
  • Join a writing critique group, find a critique partner, or enlist beta readers to help you identify stilted dialogue in your manuscripts.
  • Read books by writers who excel in dialogue. Some I can recommended for their use of dialogue are Charles Dickens, Robert B. Parker, Brandilyn Collins, and Nicholas Sparks.

Some Final Thoughts

I’m all for knowing and using writing rules, but they should never be allowed to overpower the story.  Be a stickler for grammar in your prose but relax a little when writing dialogue. You’ll enjoy it more, and so will your readers.

Next time we’ll cover dialogue writing mistake #9: using cliches in dialogue.

Go to dialogue writing mistake #7: Creating Talking Heads.

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Written by Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt

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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

2 thoughts on “Stilted Dialogue (Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes)”

  1. I don’t see any sentence fragments in the ‘natural’ version.
    It’s certainly more colloquial. Dialogue needs to be; people hardly ever speak in formal English.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Chris. I was thinking that “Hang on, princess!” qualified as a sentence fragment, but it has a noun and verb. I added a different sentence fragment in the dialogue. :o)

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