Part of making speech successful in prose is by cutting out the unnecessary bits. As I’ve mentioned before characters don’t have to say hello every time they walk into a scene and readers will accept it. Other things to watch out for can be repetition, verbosity, too many umms and ahhs. Even if we have a character that hesitates a lot a paragraph of speech full of ums, ahs and ellipses don’t quite work on the page because it can begin to appear forced and unnatural whereas if we were talking to a real person who did it then it wouldn’t.

I don’t like to be dictatorial, and wouldn’t mind being proved wrong, but replicating speech on the page exactly doesn’t work. Dialogue on a page is inherently artificial and when we try to replicate real speech with all its pauses, hesitations and waffling it draws attention to this artificiality. So, as I’ve mentioned before, what we try to do is create artificial speech that sounds natural. So, unless we’ve written a character who never uses one word where fifty will do we trim.

The first thing to cut might be an exchange that ums and ahs its way around the point.

‘Do you think we should?’

‘Um… I don’t know… maybe…’

‘This… errr… it could be a really… you know… bad idea.’

‘Maybe we could…. I don’t know… ummm… yeah, let’s… you know, try it.’

This is both long winded and sounds wrong, despite the fact that when people try to make decisions it’s what they might do. If we cut out the unnecessary words and some of the ellipses then we could have:

‘Do you think we should?’

‘I don’t know… maybe.’

‘This could be a really bad idea.’

‘Let’s try it.’

By cutting verbose reality the dialogue already sounds more convincing than it did before. We still have the same debate, there’s still hesitation and we get to the same point but in nineteen words rather than thirty-four. If we added attribution tags we could continue to build the hesitation in without the excessive dialogue.

‘Do you think we should?’ Steven whispered.

‘I don’t know…’ Jane worried her lip. ‘Maybe.’

‘This could be a really bad idea.’ Steven twisted his ring back and forth.

‘Let’s try it,’ Jane said.

It might not get me a literary award but funnily enough it’s thirty-four words again but this time hesitation is built into the prose with the description of their speech and behaviour showing what the ums and ahs were trying to show. You don’t have to do it exactly like this I’m just trying to maximise the example.

We can still use umms and ahs to emphasis hesitations or perhaps suggest a character isn’t being entirely truthful or a multitude of other reasons. We simply have to try and use them in moderation and they have to serve a purpose. If a character walks into a room and says ‘hello’ why are they doing that? Are they friendly or unfriendly? Are they making a point?

Why is a founding question of writing whether it’s ‘why are they doing this?’ or ‘why or they saying this?’ or ‘why is this relevant to the story?’

The reason can be anything from ‘because they think it’s the right thing to do’ to ‘because this shows more of their character’ but when we’re deciding how to trim our dialogue the reason a character is saying something needs to be more than simply ‘because they are’. Everything a character says is a chance to reveal more about them whether it’s smooth charmer or socially awkward. It seems a pity to waste that chance on ‘because they are’.


For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on dialogue see Finding The Characters.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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