Want Fantastic Dialogue? Flee These 6 Fearsome Fillers

Want Fantastic Dialogue? Flee These 6 Fearsome Fillers

The oft-quoted recommendation to make your dialogue as realistic as possible is sometimes the worst advice imaginable. The next time you’re in a conversation—or, even better, eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation—draw back a bit and evaluate what you’re hearing.

Those “ums,” “you knows,” and “so, likes…” that pepper our everyday speech may be realistic, but they don’t generally make for good dialogue on the page. Following are a list of unnecessary “fillers” to avoid in your fictional dialogue:

1. Tics and Time Buyers

Like,” “you know, “um,” “uh,” “well,” “look,” “er,” “ah,” and their ilk rarely add anything to the conversation.

They’re little plugs our brains insert into the flow of our speech to give us time to piece together the right words and finish our thoughts.

In writing dialogue, only use these words when they indicate something about the character—and, even then, use them with extreme caution.

2. Reiterations

Whenever “huh?,” “what?,” “I didn’t hear you,” “I don’t understand,” or “could you repeat that?” crop in your dialogue and force characters to reiterate something they just said, it’s a sure indicator of one of two things:

1. The original line of dialogue was incomprehensible and needs to be rewritten.

2. The confused character’s question and the subsequent explanation are unnecessary and should be deleted.

3. Repetitions

Don’t let your characters get away with echoing each other:

“I burnt the dinner.”

“You burnt the dinner. How’d that happen?”

“I don’t know how it happened. It just did.”

Keep each line of dialogue fresh and punchy with new material:

“I burnt the dinner.”

“How’d that happen?”

“It just did.”

4. Info Dumps

In real life, you’d get strange looks and lose friends if you went around saying things like the following:

As you know, Bob, our sister got married last Tuesday and we both missed her wedding because we discussed it amongst ourselves and decided together that we wanted to spite her.”

Unless there’s a good reason for including such information in dialogue, spare your characters and your readers and place the necessary info into the narrative instead.

5. Small Talk

Introductions, greetings, farewells, chitchat about the weather—nine times out of ten all that good stuff completely unnecessary to the plot and adds little or nothing to character development. Ax it relentlessly.

6. Direct Address

Characters calling each other by name is one of the subtler forms of “filling,” but, ironically, it’s also one of the most unrealistic attempts to create authentic dialogue. In real life, we generally call people by name only when trying to get their attention, when emphasizing a point, when in the throes of strong emotion, or to avoid confusion.

***

Dialogue is one of the most fun bits of fiction to write, in large part because the gloves are off and “the rules” rarely apply. In fact, none of these “rules” I’ve listed here will apply in every circumstance. Sometimes you’ll make the educated choice to use one or all of these fillers to advance your plot or illustrate something about a character. Just make certain you understand why and when to use them. Now, sit back and let ’em talk!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the trickiest part of writing good dialogue? Tell me in the comments!
Want Fantastic Dialogue? Flee These 6 Fearsome Fillers

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. #4 is my absolute biggest pet peeve in dialogue!!! EEERRRGGGHHHH!!!!!

  2. Alex McGilvery says

    These are all great, there is also the repetitive nature of much conversation with people saying the same thing several different ways. There is also the temptation to have your characters dissect the subject covering every possible outcome, like students at a bar after a couple too many beers.

  3. #1 The occasional “um” and such are dropped mainly by one character in my SFF WIP. He’s meant to be a little dorky, and being from a different time period than the rest of the cast, he doesn’t know what he’s doing sometimes. It actually helps show this side of his character, I think.

    It’s all about context, right? 🙂

  4. Great advice for writing realistic dialogue. Numbers 4 and 6 are my pet peeves. I see those more often than I would like to in my reading.

  5. Steve Cooper says

    I see the previous entry was in 2019, so I don’t know if anyone is still in the room but I still have to ask…

    Tip #3: Don’t let your characters get away with echoing each other:

    “I burnt the dinner.”
    “You burnt the dinner. How’d that happen?”

    I’ve often seen this kind of “repetition” as a way of showing a character’s aggressive or abrasive personality. Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington often play characters who use this technique to put people on the defensive.

    Therefore, I’m thinking that, with the exception of #4 Info Dumps, any of the other 6 tips (reiterations, calling people by name, tics and time buyers, etc), are not necessarily out of place when they are consistent with a character’s voice or personality–or consistent with a cultural style of speaking. They are only out of place when used randomly or without a specific purpose.
    Am I on the right track?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely. There are exceptions to every rule, and characterization is often a good reason for them.

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