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Dialogue: Filler Words

Crafting dialogue that sounds like real speech while still being purposeful and engaging can be difficult. Real conversations often include filler words, interruptions, and tangents, but too much of this in writing can make dialogue seem disjointed or boring.

The danger of filer words
I like, um, ... you know.

I created a character once based on the vocal cadence and mannerisms of Dr. Michael Greger, a famous author. He is unique, and I wanted a person with that tone, vocal pauses, and intonations to help me remove dialogue tags and the like around him because it would always be clear when he was speaking. Check out the link to his speaking, a great talk and a great example of a unique voice.

When you listen to more of his pieces, he has the occasional vocal pause and a very unique, to my ear, up-and-down sound to him. I tried to explain it, mimic it in the dialogue, and my beta readers and editors said it was terribly distracting and annoying to read.

How had reality failed me?

The more I write, the more I fall into the camp that reality and novels cannot match, though I know other authors who insist otherwise.

In real conversations, people often interrupt each other or speak over one another. Incorporating this can make dialogue feel more lifelike, but it needs to be done judiciously to avoid confusing the reader. People rarely speak in perfect sentences. They use contractions, trail off, and change direction mid-sentence. Mimicking this natural flow helps dialogue feel authentic, but again, it can be hard to read. Real conversations are filled with "um," "uh," and other filler words, but too much of this reads wrong in a book and slows down the reader. I now use them sparingly to add realism without detracting from readability.

Think about what characters sound like in your head as you read. We assign a voice to them ourselves. We can influence that voice as authors to our readers, but the reality is we can’t force anything. Different characters should have distinct ways of speaking. This includes vocabulary choices, sentence structure, and rhythm. For instance, as we have mentioned in past postings, a professor might use more complex language than a teenager. But the use of these verbal cues and odd tics must, I think, be used sparingly to attribute speech in dialogue. While the human mind in real life seems to filter them out, in a book, we are not so lucky.

We all know tight, wrong-sounding speech when we see it. Breaking it down to the parlance that belongs is hard, but practice makes perfect. Experiment with vocal pauses, broken-off speech, and nonsense segues, and then see how they read when you review the work. Sometimes they will work, and sometimes they won’t. But dialogue, like all aspects of writing, needs practice. So, get out there and write.

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