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?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 34: Repetitive Dialogue

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. thomas h cullen says:

    The storyteller’s true mark of skill is in their capacity to always know the difference: will their repetition push the reader way, or in fact pull them in?

    (Just like the chapter, dialogue as a story feature doesn’t suit The Representative’s format.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is always a line we must walk, but with repetitious dialogue, we’re rarely better off including it.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        I completely agree. Really what I was talking about was repetition related to theme, or plot symmetry, etc.

        It does take true skill: convincingly, being able to pull off repetitious dialogue.

  2. Needlessly repetitive dialogue gets on my nerves! Especially when the author is doing it to “maintain realism” or to “get a point across”. To me one of the greatest things about fiction is that there can be control, meaning, and conciseness that real life often lacks. Good post as usual.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Fiction mimics life, but only insofar as its interesting or useful to the overall purpose.

  3. Repetition might be a symptom of a writer’s compulsion to inform the reader of every little detail. It might also be that the writer is gun-shy of narrative from hearing “show, don’t tell” too often.

    The best I can do is to pass along a great little mnemonic–RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re right: it is a great mnemonic. We’d all do well to tape it above our computers.

  4. But repetitive can be used minimally to convey a character’s level of distraction/preoccupation or does that fall under the ‘realistic dialog’ trap?

  5. I’m going through a manuscript right now, and I have noticed some repetitive dialog I need to cut. I’m not sure I would have picked up on it if I hadn’t read this post. Thanks!

  6. My trick is to forget to put dialogue in at all! 😉 Repetitive scenarios are the worst, I stopped reading a series because every couple of chapters it would re-explain how they tamed some wild horses. You just wanted to yell at the author “I know! I was there!”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Okay, so your comment gave me two chuckles. First off, your trick is surprisingly effective. 😉 Second, your reaction to the wild horses is *exactly* my reaction to some of these scenarios.

  7. Thanks for posting, it annoyed me even reading the examples of repetitive dialogue you provided. Luckily I don’t think i’ve ever read anything like that, if I did it would soon give up. Boring boring boring – oops i’ve repeated myself.

  8. Janey Egerton says:

    Hi Katie,

    thank you for this post. I am especially worried about #3. My WIP (first draft nearly finished) features three main characters involved in a love triangle. In summary, L. thinks she’s in love with T. and will try everything to stick to that relationship. Meanwhile she’s not able to see that her best friend P. is in love with her and it will take a lot of effort for L. to eventually accept that T. is not good for her and for her and P. to become a couple and “live happily ever after”.

    I know, it sounds like a boring 99p novelette hanging at a railway station kiosk between yellow press papers and crisps packets, but it’s actually supposed to be a strong novel about character development. T. has a mildly underdeveloped negative arc, while L. and P. have full-works positive arcs (not necessarily in sync with each other), and they have to overcome powerful lies before they can get to the ever-after part.

    The thing is that while there are minor characters that come and go, most of the time the three characters interact with each other. And since the three main characters have different jobs and hobbies, their interaction is in the form of extended dialogue taking place in pubs, restaurants, cafes, or in T.’s or P.’s living room. I’ve been very careful to have every conversation be unique and to advance the plot in the sense that each piece of dialogue reveals a new puzzle piece of the characters’ past or of their innermost ghosts, but I’m worried that the constant biscuit munching and tea drinking between dialogue lines might be perceived as repetitive (even though the beta readers haven’t complained about that).

    Care to give your opinion, please?

    • Janey Egerton says:

      I forgot to mention that some conversations also take place while the characters are strolling around various places (museum, botanic garden, castle ruins, historic places in old English cities), and that I’m trying to use the observation each character makes about what they are seeing to show what each characters cares about, is knowledgeable of, etc. But there are relatively few scenes like these.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      It’s a very relevant idea, actually, rejection to an entire product just out of instinctive aversion to part of its surface identity.

      Good luck anyway.

    • I think varying the scenes is a good idea. I get frustrated with authors that have conversations in the same setting, consistently over and over. Like you said, there’s only so much of the “signaling the waiter” and “clinking nails against a glass of ice” that I can take. (Sue Grafton used to irritate me with her dinners at Rosie’s diner but a lot of her latest books are taking place in different unique settings which I think helps).

      I guess if they do have a favorite hang out (even if it is the living room), you can make different things happen in the scene. I have high school characters who converse a lot in the lunch room, so sometimes the scene focuses on what they are eating. Another time there is a commotion across the room and they focus on what the other students are doing. A third time they get into an argument and stomp off, throwing their food away before they even have time to eat. And at the end, when I want to really show the reader that the character is alone and lonely, she sits in the cafeteria by herself (abandoned by her friends).

      Hope that helps! Good luck with the manuscript!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good advice from Janelle here. Also, it’s worth noting that if the only repetition you’re worried about is happening in comparatively unimportant action beats, then you might be surprised with how many of those action beats you can actually delete without harming the scene at all.

      • Janey Egerton says:

        Thanks for your comment, Janelle.

        Sorry, Thomas, I’m not sure I understood what you mean.

        Thanks, Katie, but if I’m worried that if I start deleting too many action beats, then I might end up with too much raw dialogue. Isn’t that bad style? After all, it’s not supposed to be a theatre script.

        • thomas h cullen says:

          The reason I’ve experienced so many empty outcomes with The Representative: habitually, we reject things at a ‘surface’ point, assuming too much about them.

          Despite the countless times in which I’ve described ‘TR’ as without precedent, or an entirely new kind of literature, the surface point, for example, of its just being 4,500 words long has habitually barricaded it from getting off the ground.

          It’s our instinct to assume too much – hence where our intelligence needs to fight back!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          There’s definitely a balance. We don’t want to end up with white-wall syndrome or talking-head syndrome. But we also don’t want to be including action beats just for the sake of a beat. If the beats aren’t driving the plot just as much as the dialogue, we either need to cut them or reevaluate how we can bring added value to the scene with more pertinent actions.

  9. I think the repetition that grates on me most is that of the character, especially in romances, constantly reminding herself (or himself) of a complication that usually isn’t true. Example: Character sees current love interest in some setting or with someone else or overhears something which might be interpreted to mean the love interest is committed elsewhere. The character keeps reminding herself of that several times throughout the book. “But I mustn’t think of Ian that way. He’s just being a friend. His heart is elsewhere. ” The constant reminding gets tiresome to the reader, who already is pretty sure the two will wind up together once the misunderstanding is understood or the other obstacles to the romance are removed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ah, yes, this is one of my pet peeves as well. It’s really more a problem of “false conflict” than it is repetition. We always risk suspension of disbelief when we force characters to believe something readers are smart enough to know isn’t true.

  10. I wish I had read this post several years ago when I was writing my first book. I wouldn’t have had to learn the lesson here the hard way.

  11. Repetitive descriptions by the narrator drive me bonkers as well.

  12. I also have trouble with series when the books recap what happened in the first…I start to skim at that point. I will keep this in mind when I go back and edit…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Recaps are important, but they can be done with surprising subtlety. It’s amazing how little readers actually need to have repeated (or even explained, if they happened to enter the series in a later book).

  13. Thanks for this very useful advice. What I do if I have to repeat a story to a character who wasn’t aware of it is to summarize briefly. As for repetitive scenes, a good technique is to break up the routine. Maybe Kelly arrives first and everyone wonders why. I like to engage in ‘what if’ exercises. What if this happened instead of what the reader is expecting. Why would it happen this way and how does it change things?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “What if” questions are a fabulous brainstorming tool. I use them frequently. Never know what interesting story situations they’ll lead to!

    • thomas h cullen says:

      That’s the very essence of art, CG. Best approach.

      (Keep in mind though character consistency.)

  14. Thanks. Many young authors I read suffer from this.

  15. There are better ways to slow down a story if it needs it. imop.

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