Writing Pitfall #2: Irrelevant Dialogue

writing pitfalls image on BTH ReviewsIrrelevant Dialogue is the second writing pitfall I would like to talk about.

I see irrelevant dialogue often in books, mostly in those written by new authors. I’ve also seen it a lot in works-in-progress shared by writers on forums. Characters go off on tangents talking about things that don’t have much bearing on the plot. A well-edited book will have cut all of the irrelevant dialogue. Of course, as a writer, you could save your editor some trouble by getting rid of it or not writing it at all.

How to Cut Irrelevant Dialogue

When you write dialogue, you should ask yourself:

Is this conversation necessary?

In other words, the conversation needs to happen at that moment, advances the plot, and doesn’t contain unnecessary information.

Let’s break those three things down:

1. Needs to happen at that moment: There’s no better time to discuss it. For example, if the characters are undressing one another, it’s probably not the best time to talk about something that happened earlier that day, unless their lovemaking is going to be interrupted by something directly tied to what is being said.

2. Advances the plot: The dialogue contains something that moves the plot forward like a piece of information or a source of conflict.

3. Doesn’t contain unnecessary information: Dialogue in fiction is not like real-life. I talk about all kinds of insignificant things with my friends and family. If I had a character do this in a novel, the reader would get bored really fast. Plus, I’d be wasting valuable space. If the conversation between characters is chit-chat, delete it.

Does the dialogue further the reader’s understanding of my character?

Irrelevant dialogue can sometimes not be irrelevant if it works toward characterization. It might not seem relevant, but it could make the reader connect with the character on a greater level. If your character has a fondness for chocolate, for example, she might mention it. Perhaps her fondness for chocolate has made her overweight. She has a weakness. Readers could see her as more human because of this. Or, maybe some readers will relate to her more because they also have a fondness for chocolate. It’s okay to have some of these details in dialogue. Just don’t run off on long tangents that will never have anything to do with the story. If she spends an entire paragraph talking about chocolate, the author better have a good reason for keeping that in the book.

Could I use something in this dialogue later?

On the surface, the dialogue could seem irrelevant, but it could be important later. I love it when authors remember some little detail or something someone said and bring it back into the story at a later point.

For example, our heroine mentioned her fondness for chocolate in chapter two. In chapter thirty-two, after she thinks the hero has abandoned her, she finds a chocolate on her bed pillow.

My Conclusion About Irrelevant Dialogue

This writing pitfall is common, but it doesn’t have to be. Careful editing can eliminate irrelevant dialogue entirely by either transforming it into something relevant or by cutting it out of the story. If it truly has no purpose, cut it out of the story. If you’re in love with the dialogue, then find a way to make it important to the plot or characters.


For more articles about writing fiction, please check out our writing resources page.
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About Jen Schaper

In addition to being a book blogger, I am a mother of three children, a retail backroom coordinator, and a wannabe writer (when I make time to do it).
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