Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Monday, April 25, 2011

Unappreciated, Unadulterated, Unnecessary, Um...

Undulating undies! My From A to Z Contest closes at 11:59 pm tonight, ending your chance at over $100 in prizes. What are you waiting for?

Um, so I was thinking, well, you know, that I might try to, uuuh, write a post the way you—that is, the way we, as a people, y'know, talk.

Every writer has probably considered this at some point. For realistic-sounding dialogue, why not use dialogue taken directly from real life? And then they listen to how real people talk.

Our conversations are full of crutch words and verbal tics, those uhs and ums and y'knows we say without realizing it.1 We stutter, we stop, we interrupt each other. We change what we're saying multiple times before completing a thought. We complete each others' thoughts, or move on without completing them. Basically, it's like we're all talking in Mamet speak.

This works in real life because we learn to subconsciously ignore all these little tics, and read into what people are saying. When reading, however, our brains don't work the same way. We see every word. And if we actually have to, um, read, like, every word, it, well, it gets tougher to—it gets a bit stilted.

Dialogue and narrative should flow, not feel like a case of literary hiccups. It's fine to use a touch here and there, perhaps an um of consideration or an occasional y'know from one character. But a little can go a long way, so don't overdo it.2

Realism is good. But for good realistic dialogue, fake it.

1 Once, while listening to a vendor give a presentation, I noticed his inadvertent overuse of "y'know," so I started counting. Before a minute had passed, he'd hit 20. No one else in the room noticed this tic at all.
2 This goes for regional dialects and accents, too. And adverbs. And exposition. And sentences that begin with conjunctions.

This post is part of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge, hosted by Jen Daiker and seven others. Go check out the other participants!


  1. Nate, I gotta say that your humor, posts, and especially your writing will never go unappreciated by me. Great job on tackling dialogue!

  2. Good points, Nate. We need dialogue to be realistic but not so much so that it is boring. All dialogue must also move the story/plot ahead in some way.

    Ellie Garratt

  3. Completely, erm...what's the word? Concur! I completely concur, yup it’s a concurable blummin' article from this there chap 'ere.

    'Fake it' is the best advice with dialogue. If we wrote what people sounded like then it would be worse than writing in code. Dialogue in real life is a 50/50 split between what we’re thinking and the words that actually come out of our mouths. Impossible to portray in fiction unless you interrupt every fourth word of speech with the thought process behind it.

    Good post, Nate!

    Steven Chapman (writer)

  4. I like totally agree like. sometimes when listening to folks talk I want to bang their heads together - like, awesome eh?
    Jan Morrison

  5. Um, you're like so, uh, totally, um, ya know...brilliant. I really wish I was, you know...

  6. dammit! Hannah stole my comment motif. Sigh. So more or less what she said. Just not with all the funny "ums" and junk.

  7. Ummm....fantastic! I uh, definitely agree. You are brilliant and funny. Sorry I didn't run across your blog sooner! I'm going to have to take some time to read through your previous posts. I like your wit!

  8. And footnote #2 needs to be followed at all times.

  9. One of my biggest hang-up's. It always sounds great in my head... until I read it.

  10. It was hard to read all those tics... man, I should reconsider how I let the words flow from my fingers. Maybe just let it flow & then go back and edit:-) Stop in & read U is for Uranus

  11. Jeffrey: I may have tackled dialogue, but it jumped right back up and kept going. Stupid running dialogue. (And thanks for the compliments.)

    Ellie: And that's another excellent point. Dialogue must always serve a purpose, and not just be there for the author to show off his cleverness. (Note to self: remove half your novel's dialogue.)

    Steven: Exactly. Authors are not court stenographers (at least, not most of us). We're supposed to streamline dialogue and make it understandable. Glad you concurred with my blummin' article.

    Jan: Indeed, that would be awesome. I'm grinning just thinking of the hollow thud and ensuing silence that would result.

    Hannah: 'Brilliant' might be like, ya know, an exaggeration, but, well, thank... what's the word, it's right on the tip of my... you!

    Falen: Please see the comment I made to Hannah, but remove all the unnecessary riffraff. :)

    Heather: Thanks! I'm glad I was amusing enough to get you to venture into the archives. Hope they don't disappoint...

    Alex: I couldn't have said it better myself.

    Chuck: I have the same problem with actual conversations. Everything sounds great in my head... until I speak.

    cosmos: I hear that's the way to do it. Let the words flow, then edit the dickens out of them. (Unless your story is about Dickens, of course.)