The First Rule Is Still the First Rule
The very first thing that everyone learns about writing dialogue is that we can’t write exactly in the way people speak any more than we can speak in the identical manner in which people write. Yet I read material all the time in which good writers forget or stretch this axiom.
Let’s Begin with “Well”
Anyone who’s old enough to remember Ronald Reagan’s speeches–and he was nicknamed “The Great Orator”– is aware of how often he’d begin a line with “Well” and then an extended pause. It was his trademark, and so well known that comics copied it in their routines, and even the single word “well” would have a crowd in stitches. But “well” doesn’t work when writing dialogue because it soon turns into a tic.
One “Well” Per Narrative, Please
There are indeed times in the dialogue of a story when “well” is perfectly acceptable. Just not at the start of every sentence spoken by a character, or worse yet by a number of characters. Someone saying one time, “Well, I’m just not sure about that,” is a lot more palatable to a reader than a character’s, “Well, you need to go see Jerry,” followed by, “Well, I can see where that could be important,” and then, “Well, how did it go?”
If writers will read their dialogue aloud, the superfluous nature of “well,”–and its redundancy if this should be the case–will quickly become evident.
“Oh” Is the Next Culprit
As someone said once, “If ‘well’ doesn’t get you, ‘oh’ will.” And this is true. In everyday speech, people are constantly saying, “Oh, come on,” or “Oh, I don’t know,” along with an inordinate number of other phrases that start with “Oh.” Start a half-dozen lines in a story with “Oh” and the reader is usually long gone before the next half-dozen.
Then There Are “Ah” and “Er”
“Ah” and “er” do nothing for dialogue, and while I don’t like the use of ellipses in a story, I’d rather see them any day in lieu of an “ah” or an “er.” Anything that retards the flow of speech is bad, and these particular words are two of the major culprits.
Combine These Examples for a Very Mushy Rhetorical Stew
It’s very common for someone to say, “Oh, well, ah, I guess so.” But please don’t write it out this way. Instead, if you feel the pause is necessary to express to the reader, write something such as: Joan paused to think about it. “I guess so.” Or: Joan hesitated, then said, “I guess so.” Or even a simple: Joan paused. “I guess so.” This is an instance when a pause is just that, and the halt in the action defines what would have been said via “ah” or “er.”
“Hey” Has Only One Use in Dialogue
It’s common to see dialogue begin with “Hey.” This is another word that’s used as often as any to begin everyday speech but should not start a sentence of dialogue unless the character is yelling, “Hey, don’t walk out on me!” or “Hey, is Pete down there?” It’s not a word to use in standard runs of dialogue such as, “Hey, you know me,” or “Hey, you know what I’m saying.” (However, if you’re writing like Damon Runyon, “Hey, you know me,” was a particular character’s comical speech pattern, and this is a different issue altogether.)
Phrases Such as “You know” and “I mean” Should Be Avoided
Even when writing slang these phrases should be avoided, as they tend to slow the reader. The best way to view both phrases is in the same way we’re admonished when it comes to our personal speech, and this is to eschew their use. It only requires a few times of reading “you know” or “I mean” before the readability of the story is seriously affected.
“Listen” Is Perhaps the Worst Offender of All
How many times when we’re on the phone do we tell someone to “Listen?” As if the person isn’t already doing that, ha ha. People love to use the word, but it has no place when writing dialogue.
Hear Dialogue Read Aloud to Ferret Out Superfluous Wording
If the person reading the dialogue is hesitating, this usually means the text needs to be revised. I think it’s fair to state that the following doesn’t read smoothly: “Listen, ah, well, er, I mean, oh, hey, you know?” When one finally gets through that sentence, a question to ask is why would anyone really want to talk like this? Yet people indeed do–and all the time. Just don’t write it this way unless it’s a one-time line to show a character’s nervous behavior.
Robert L. Bacon, Founder
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