Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 34: Repetitive Dialogue
Forget all the other writing rules, but always remember this one: The reader’s time is valuable. Readers don’t want to listen to us or our characters repeat ourselves—especially in repetitive dialogue.
It’s surprising how easily repetitive dialogue can sneak into our writing. Half the time we’re so close to the material, we may not even be aware we are repeating ourselves. But readers will always notice. Whether déjà vu starts tickling or they outright remember the last time your character had this conversation, they’re likely to start yawning and looking around for something new to engage their brains. A reader who’s yawning and looking around is a reader you’ve already lost.
Don’t let that happen.
What Is Repetitive Dialogue?
The obvious answer is that repetitive dialogue is dialogue that repeats itself. But let’s consider some specific scenarios.
Repetitive Dialogue Type #1: Realistic Conversation
Jan and Sally met each other outside the café and sat down at one of the tables, beneath a faded pink umbrella.
Jan shrugged out of her purse and set it between her feet. “Great day, isn’t it?”
“Definitely.” Sally straightened her silverware. “We couldn’t have picked a better one. How’s Hal? Still in the hospital?”
“Yeah, he’ll have to stay another couple days for observation.”
In the street, car horns blared. Kelly waved at them and ran through traffic.
She plopped into the third seat at the table. “Sorry I’m late. How are you two? Boy, didn’t we pick a gorgeous day for a reunion?”
Sally leaned over to air-kiss Kelly’s cheek. “Sure did. We were just saying that. Jan was telling me about Hal.”
Kelly turned to Jan. “Oh, yes, I was just thinking about him. How is he?”
Repetitive Dialogue Type #2: Gentle Reminders
“Sorry, Hal.” To his credit, Dr. Savoy really did look a little pained. “You’ve got double pneumonia, buddy. Afraid you won’t be going home for a couple days. How come you don’t take better care of yourself?”
Hal dragged in as deep a breath as he could manage. Pain stabbed his lungs. “It was raining last week, and I had to walk all the way home. I had a taxi, but this little old lady came along, so I gave it to her.”
Two days later:
Hal’s boss Mr. Gerold carried a huge vase of daisies into the hospital room. “So I hear you’re incapacitated for the week, old boy?”
“Sorry, sir,” Hal croaked.
In the corner, Jan rose from her chair. She sighed and took the daisies from Mr. Gerold. “I suppose you heard about his good Samaritan act? He gave his taxi to some old hag and walked all the way home in that freezing rain last week!”
Repetitive Dialogue Type #3: Unvaried Scenarios
The day after Hal finally got out of the hospital, Jan met Sally at the café for their new weekly routine: breakfast on Wednesdays. Apparently, being late was Kelly’s new weekly routine.
“Here she comes, running through traffic again,” Sally said.
Kelly bounced over the curb and air-kissed first Sally’s cheek, then Jan’s. “So sorry I’m late again. How’s Hal? Out of the hospital yet?”
3 Reasons You Might Be Writing Repetitive Dialogue
At first glance, repetitive dialogue may seem to be nothing more than lazy writing. But even experienced authors can get caught in the trap despite their best intentions. Repetitive dialogue can happen for any number of reasons, including the following:
1. Authorial Throat Clearing
The first example above is a classic. This kind of boring “filler” dialogue can happen for two reasons.
1. The author is trying to mimic “realistic” conversation, in which humans engage in meaningless small talk. In real life, that kind of thing may be necessary to pass the time and warm the air between people who haven’t seen each other for a while. But in fiction, readers just want to get to good stuff as quickly as possible.
2. When the author started writing the scene, he wasn’t yet sure what was the point of the conversation. He had to go through the usual warm-up of small talk just to discover what was really going on between these characters. That’s all fine and good, but do your readers a favor and cut the chitchat once you’ve discovered what you really want your characters to say.
2. The Character (or the Readers) Need a Reminder
The repetition in our second example, above, is especially obvious, since you’re seeing the two repetitive conversations side by side. But even when the conversations are scenes apart, these reminders aren’t as necessary as you may think.
DO CHARACTERS NEED REMINDING?
This falls into the same category as our “realistic” chitchat in the first example. In real life, someone may have a reason to tell the same story over and over again. No doubt, everybody Hal knows is going to end up hearing about the little old lady and the taxi. But that doesn’t mean readers need to listen in every single time.
If you feel you can’t maintain realism without letting readers know the story is being told again and again, that’s fine. But settle for telling readers Hal is sharing his tale, rather than repeating it word for word.
DO READERS NEED REMINDING?
Authors may sometimes feel they need to remind the readers of previous information. And, granted, sometimes we do. But keep in mind that readers will read your story about a hundred times faster than you’re writing it. That conversation you wrote about in Chapter One, which now seems so distant to you, is a detail your readers just read about yesterday.
More than likely, they’re going to remember that conversation well enough they won’t need to be reminded. When in doubt, give them a little hint to jog their memories, but don’t condescend by spelling out everything a second time.
3. Too Many Scenes Are Too Much the Same
Finally, the most egregious instance of repetition—and, sadly, the one that requires the most labor to correct—is more of a story problem than a dialogue problem. In our third example, the problem isn’t so much that we’re hearing basically the same dialogue from our three characters. The problem is that we’ve already read this scene once before. The author is giving us the same scenario all over again: same characters, same setting, same actions.
If you find your dialogue getting stale and overly familiar, the problem could be that your story is getting stale. Look for ways to mix things up. Bring new conflict into play. Don’t let those characters get too comfortable in their routines. When you inject new story elements, fresh new dialogue follows effortlessly.
Tell me your opinion: What’s your best trick for avoiding repetitive dialogue in your own stories?