The Way That We Like To Talk and Use Too Many Ums and Ers etc.

I thought it was time for a little editing tip, although I’m quite sure all of you know this stuff.

Fictional dialogue is one of the things I love the most and those of you who have read my work will know how I use this a lot; and how I use it as part of establishing character voice. But there are ways you have to do this to get it right.

In real life we use of lot of redundant phrasing; a lot of oohs and ahs and ums and erms and we repeat ourselves. Just listen to conversations happening around you over the weekend. We also have what we call the ‘business’ or chit chat: the hellos, how are yous, how do you like your coffee, and the goodbye, bye, thanks for the chat, nice to see yous… right?

In fiction we have to be a lot more succinct and the business etc. can be assumed or implied.

Fictional dialogue becomes ‘filler’ if it is not functional. So remember it has to move plot and develop character. It also has to sound natural at the same time. So we need some of those ums and ers and clipped short responses as well. So it also has to capture voice. It also needs action and reaction so you create subtext; often it’s not what’s said but how it’s said and what characters do as they say it that is more telling than the words used.

It’s most certainly about establishing a balance.

Some people might think Lydia in While No One Was Watching talks too much and there is some repetition in how she speaks, but this is part of her first-person voice. However, everything she says is functional and it’s in her actions as she does this you will find meaning.

So common errors apart from formatting and punctuation: please look in books and get this right, are:

  • Stunted dialogue: it feels unnatural and perfunctory: this can because it states the obvious, uses character names too much, we don’t tag them onto the end of everything we say, they don’t give the reader new information, they don’t use contractions so they say it is rather that it’s.
  • Repeating information: remember that if we see a scene where a character learns something don’t have them repeat this to tell another character; assume they’ve been told or say once she’d filled her in or something like that.
  • Lose ‘business’ unless you use it not to show what’s said but how and to show a reaction so perhaps the other character isn’t listening and perhaps that’s significant.
  • Don’t have a character tell another character something they’d know like: “Isn’t it terrible, dear that it’s been fifteen years today since our lovely son died in that terrible skiing accident in the south of France when he was nineteen on that college trip and he was in a coma for three days.” Have them look at a photo and say, “How can it be fifteen years?” and find another way to drip-feed in the detail that’s needed as and when it’s needed.
  • Don’t use lots of words for ‘said’; stick to said. It’s small and invisible and isn’t telling! The other words like retorted, responded, interrupted, interjected, postulated are telling!
  • Don’t use lots of adverbs to show how something’s said; if you set it up right this is often implied.
  • Ensure you used action and reaction to create subtext as people speak, people always do other things as they speak and readers are experts in body language.
  • Don’t use telling tags! Don’t tell us why a character is asking a question or say they decide to ask and then show them ask it; just show it. Don’t comment on why or how it’s said, again just show it! Allow the reader to actively assign the reason to why!

Have a look at how dialogue is used in fiction and think about it from a functional point of view. Also make sure that there is a good balance in your work and it’s not overloaded with conversations: people make the mistake of thinking dialogue is a way to show and not tell. It can be but it’s not the only way. Also make sure dialogue is active and not always recalled in a passive way like he had said that. You can use this but if you then show the dialogue in flashback as it happened it has more energy.


That is it folks for the week; have a great weekend and see you all Monday!




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