3 Things To Leave Out Of Your Dialogue

Below are a few things I’ve learned to omit from dialogue to make it sound more real.

I say “sound more real” because, as I mentioned in Improving Your Dialogue, the best dialogue gives the feel of true-to-life conversation, but doesn’t duplicate it.

If it did, it’d be pretty dull.

Leave Out the Uhs and Ums

Uhs, um, likes, and you knows are words and sounds most of us say some or all of the time. Consciously or unconsciously we use them to stall for time while we think, to fill pauses, to show we belong to a social group that uses them, or simply out of habit.

Just as professional speakers strive to eliminate them, most of the time so should we as authors.

That’s because while they certainly sound realistic, using them distracts and annoys most readers. They stand out in print, where we’re not used to seeing them. Also, these filler words and sounds can make your characters sound less confident, more hesitant, or younger than you mean them to be.

Which brings me to why you should use these vocalizations some of the time.

If saying “uh” or “you know” reflects something about your character (age, nervousness, discomfort in social situations), then by all means include it. Even so, you probably don’t want to put these types of phrases or words into your character’s conversation as often as they might occur in real life.

Let’s say you’re modeling your character after someone who says “you know” in nearly every sentence.

On the page, that will probably drive your readers crazy. So you might try “you know” in one out of three or four lines of dialogue.

If you’re uncertain, find some books where you love the dialogue. See how the author handles these types of words and how often they appear, and use that as your guide.

Don’t Say Hello or Good-bye

Pay attention next time you see a phone conversation in a movie or on a television show. The actors rarely greet one another with Hello or Hi or end calls with Bye. When they’re done talking they just hang up the phone.

In real life, we’d consider these characters rude.

That’s especially so because, along with greetings like Hi or Good-bye, most of us ease into and out of conversations whether in person, by text, or by phone. Rarely do we simply walk away or hang up.

Typically one person on the phone says something like, “I should let you go.” The other responds by agreeing but typically adding something about talking again soon, or having a good week. The other person responds in kind. There’s often some sort of “take care” or “be well” back and forth and finally both parties say good-bye and hang up.

The beginnings of many conversations are similar.

Usually both people exchange Hellos and How Are Yous that go on for a minute or two before they talk about anything significant.

If you included these types of interactions in every conversation in your novel, you’d massively extend its length without furthering the plot.

You may  get in a little character development, but your readers will likely miss it, as they’ve probably taken to skimming the beginnings and endings of all the conversations.

Here are a few ways to omit these types of exchanges without making your dialogue seem unrealistic:

  • Start the scene when the conversation is already in progress
  • Summarize the beginning or end of the conversation or both
  • Include a word or two in one character’s dialogue to give the flavor of a Hello and Good-bye sequence: “Hey, Juan, I’m calling about the party.” or “I’ve heard enough. Good-bye.”

Eliminate the Is

In my Advanced Playwriting class in college (I got a Writing degree–did you guess that?) I read a scene in class. The professor, Paul Carter Harrison, wrote one of my lines on the board: “I’m sorry.”

When I finished, he said, “Nobody says ‘I’m sorry.'”

At first I was confused. I thought he meant no one ever apologized, which obviously isn’t true.

Then he explained that he meant that unless it’s a very formal situation or there’s some reason for emphasis, people say “Sorry” not “I’m sorry.”

As I started listening more to people and to myself, I realized how often we omit pronouns when talking about ourselves.

As an example, which of the two dialogue sections below sounds more realistic?

  1. “I’m sorry I’m late. I had to stop at Starbucks because my mother wanted coffee.”
  2. “Sorry I’m late. Had to stop at Starbucks–Mom wanted coffee.”

Two is probably spot on for most characters.

Of course you could have a character who speaks more formally or precisely, and that person might use the phrasing in One. Also, depending on your character’s speech patterns, you might write some combination of the two.

Further, the situation matters.

At a funeral a person might well say, “I’m sorry about your mother’s death” rather than “Sorry your mom died” because the latter sounds terse for the circumstances.

But I’d start with One as a default and go from there.

That’s all for now. Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

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