- Characters constantly using each others' names. This is especially irksome when the characters are married to each other. You know what I mean: "Jake, did you remember to pick up milk on the way home?" "No, Cindy, I was too busy wondering how long it would take you to use my name in a sentence once I got home." I mean, really. Who else would she be asking that question of?
- Saying things that the other character already knows. Lazy writers use this device to provide backstory details: "Well, sis, you know I haven't been myself since I lost that lucrative accounting job back in the spring when I lived in Seattle." Methinks that "sis" — does anyone still talk like that? did anyone ever talk like that? — knew the job in Seattle was lucrative and that "bro" lost it in the spring. "It" being the job, his normal self, and his ability to speak like a human being.
- Speech that is more formal than conversational, particularly when the scene cries out for informal dialogue. I wish I could post a real-live example from a book I just read, but that would be grossly unfair to the relatively unknown author. (Had it appeared in a book by a mega-selling author, I'd have no qualms about it; a bestselling writer should know better.) So here's my made-up example: "I've never told anyone this before. When I was just an innocent child, a beloved uncle crept into my room one night and stole my innocence from me. I could never think of him the same way again. He went from being my favorite relative to my most despised relative." I kid you not; I recently read a contemporary book in which the dialogue in what should have been a gripping scene was just this stilted. Give me a break! This young woman was revealing a secret she had harbored her entire life, and she's going to start talking like, I don't know, a prim and proper Victorian upper-cruster? I think not.
Fiction writers need to be real with their dialogue, and the best writers are those who have a finely tuned ear for dialogue. The others? It's as if they never stop and really listen to what they've just written, never stop to imagine what a person would actually say in a given situation or how the person would say it.
So that's reason number one why I've never written a novel: I'd be so critical of my own dialogue that I'd never finish writing the book.
What are your pet peeves about novels? I don't mean the obvious things, like truly lousy writing and a truly flimsy plot. What are the deal-breakers for you — those flaws that make you want to put down an otherwise good book and never finish it?