3 Common but Easily Avoided Mistakes in Fiction

3 Common Mistakes to Avoid in FictionLately, I’ve noticed several of the same kinds of mistakes occurring in the manuscripts I’m reviewing, so I thought I’d address them here today. Let’s start with the easiest one to fix.

Dialog tags before the dialog

You can find this mistake with ease, and fix it just as quickly. It happens most often when writers give their characters an action prior to the dialog.

Gary turned to me and said, “I don’t make that mistake.”

Readers know quotation marks indicate speech. The words and said are superfluous.

Laughing, Gary said, “I don’t make that mistake.”

In the example above, you can’t merely drop said and have the sentence still make sense. Instead, shift to a subject-verb construction.

Gary laughed. “I don’t make that mistake.”

In my opinion this example is stronger, though pacing will affect your choice.

I also see a straightforward tag come before the dialog.

Maribelle said, “I make that mistake all the time.”

By putting it in front of the dialog, you force the reader to read it, thinking something else is coming rather than dialog. If the tag is needed, put it after, where the reader can take it in without spending time on it.


OK, technically, to use that is not an error; however, it can often be omitted. Even as long as I’ve been writing, I still discover it in my writing when I revise.

Without going into all the grammar mumbo jumbo, remember it’s a word you can find and delete from your manuscript as you work to make your writing tight. To help you determine whether you should delete that or not, read your sentence without it. Does the sentence still make sense? If so, you’re safe to chop it out. If not, leave it in.

The lilacs that I picked yesterday still smell sweet today.
The lilacs I picked yesterday still smell sweet today.

The sentence makes perfect sense without it, so delete it. Do a find/replace (leave the replace box empty) to make this faster.

Show or tell, but not both

This mistake might be the most difficult for new writers to spot because they haven’t fully grasped the difference between telling and showing.

I know you hear it all the time “show don’t tell.” Sometimes telling is what you need, but you don’t use both to express the same thought at the same moment.

It was obvious he was embarrassed. I worked to stifle my smile as a crimson blush crept up his neck.

The first sentence tells. The second sentence shows. We don’t need both. Here’s another example accomplished in one sentence.

I was so angry I slammed my fist down on the table.

Again, the first portion tells, the second half shows. Even if you shifted the order of these sentences, you’re still making the same mistake.

You, as the writer, are the best judge of whether showing or telling is best, depending on the effect you’re trying to establish. I’m not an advocate of all show, no tell. Here’s an excellent article that explains the maxim.

The point I want to make is that writers often use both in an effort to express themselves when only one is needed.

To fix these errors in your WIP, I suggest focusing on one task at a time. Or print out a copy of your manuscript and read through it, red lining the mistakes as you see them.

Do you have a question? Post it in the comments below.

Related articles:
Telling vs. Showing, an Explanation

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  1. I found this very informative and had no idea about showing and telling. Thank you.

    • Lisa, so glad you found it helpful. I hope you linked to the related article on showing and telling I provided at the end. Many writers struggle with this and it took attending critiques groups for me to recognize it in my own writing.

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