Tag Archives: dialogue

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Crutch Words — Finding Them and Limiting Them

Last week, John Hartness, my good friend and the owner and editor at Falstaff Books, posted on Facebook about something he was seeing while editing manuscripts. Many of his writers were starting too many lines of dialogue with, “So…” As John said in the post, “We do this in real life, and it does sounds realistic, but most of us (myself 100% included) are using it too often, and it doesn’t work as well on the page as it does in real live conversation.”

What I found especially interesting about John’s post was the response to it. Writer after writer (including me) confessed to relying on all sorts of repeating words and phrases — what we in the industry call “crutch words.”

I use “So…” a bit, though not that much. On the other hand, lately my editors and I have noticed that I start way too many lines of dialogue with “Well…” As with “So…” it is something lots of us do in actual conversations, but on the page it becomes intrusive and repetitive.

I have lots of other crutch words, too, but honestly I’m reluctant to share them with you, because I don’t want you looking for them while reading my books and stories. Once you start doing this, it can totally ruin a work of fiction for you.

Suffice it to say, all of us have verbal tics that show up in our prose — words we overuse, approaches to dialogue that occur again and again, mannerisms we give to our characters that repeat themselves throughout our stories. Sometimes they are the result of habit. I know that in my case they often are a product of laziness — I need a gesture or a spoken word, and rather than pausing to come up with something different and unexpected, I throw in a standby. Moreover, even as we work to eliminate some crutches from our writing vocabularies, new ones creep in. (For me, “Well…” didn’t used to be a problem, and I’m not entirely sure when it showed up.)

So how do we deal with this issue?

First, understand that this doesn’t make you a bad writer. All writers from beginners to seasoned professionals grapple with crutch words. Don’t let yours undermine your confidence.

The key, of course, is to identify your wording habits and control them. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. When you ask people to read your manuscripts, by all means ask them to look for plotting problems, and character inconsistencies, and all the other narrative problems we writers sometimes face. But also ask them to keep an eye out for overused words and phrases. If and when they find some, start a list and keep that list around for future projects.

If you don’t have Beta readers, or don’t want to wait for outside feedback, try reading your books and stories aloud. This is one of those problems that we can gloss over all too easily when reading through a manuscript. But if we read the work out loud, and thus hear the story as well as see it, we are more likely to recognize those annoying repetitions. Again, as we find them, we should add them to our list.

Once we start to develop a bank of overused words, we can use the search function in our word processing software to find all instances of a given word or phrase and look for ways to replace some of the offending passages with something else. Remember, you don’t need to eliminate every “So…” occurrence (or whatever crutch you happen to be looking for at a particular time). The idea is to use the word/phrase in moderation.

How many instances is too many? A good question, and the truth is I don’t have a great answer. I might use as a yardstick one of my completed books, one I believe is well-written, polished, and relatively free of crutch words. If the new book has way more “Well…”s (for instance) than that old one, I assume there’s a problem and I try to fix it. If the numbers in the new book are about the same as, or lower than, the older yardstick, I move on to the next crutch. I will confess that my running list of crutch words/phrases has probably 50 entries. Maybe more. Some I’ve managed to control and eliminate as problems. Others, not so much. And, as I said before, I’m always adding new ones.

Finally, keep in mind that most readers don’t notice our crutches nearly as much as we do, or as a good editor might. Chances are one or two verbal mannerisms are going to sneak by our attempts to limit them and will wind up in the published version of our book. Don’t worry too much about that. Make sure the word is on your list, so you can address the issue in subsequent manuscripts, and then move on.

So, best of luck.

Well, keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue, Part I

I love writing dialogue, in part because I love reading dialogue. I believe that people are natural eavesdroppers. We like to listen in on other people’s conversations. That’s what reading dialogue is all about – it is one of the few times we can be privy to the private conversations of others without violating social mores.

Writing good dialogue is difficult. Attributing that dialogue skillfully and clearly can be incredibly challenging. So this week and next week I am going to focus my Writing Tip Wednesday posts on writing and attributing dialogue.

This week, let’s talk about the “spoken” words themselves. What are some of the tricks to writing good conversations among our characters?

Perhaps more than any other element of writing, constructing effective dialogue is an exercise in finding balance. What do I mean by that?

It should go without saying that our characters’ conversations need to have purpose. Every scene we write should be accomplishing multiple things at once – providing necessary background, deepening character development, furthering our narratives. Conversational scenes are no different. So our conversations need to be directed, they need to accomplish something – in other words there needs to be a point. But, you don’t want the conversations to be so directed that their outcome feels predetermined, nor do you want every encounter among characters to feel agenda-driven. We seek a balance in which the conversations accomplish all that we need them to in a way that feels completely believable.

We want our characters to get their points across without the conversation meandering too much, but we also want the dialogue to sound natural and easy, as opposed to stilted and formal. If you listen to humans conversing in a restaurant or bar, you can’t help but notice that we are remarkably inarticulate beings. We rarely speak in complete sentences, and even less frequently in sentences that are devoid of syntactical errors. We throw in a ton of “uh”s and “ummm”s and “like”s and “you know”s. Generally, we writers leave most of that stuff out of our written conversations, or else we throw in an instance or two, just to make things sound a bit more realistic, or to give a verbal tic to one character. My point is, we don’t necessarily want to make our characters sound like real people when they talk, but we also don’t want them to sound so perfect that they’re unrealistic or unrelatable. The balance here is, in effect, to make our characters talk the way we wish real people would.

So then the question becomes, how do we strike these balances?

Here are a few things I do. First, when I begin work on a scene in which, say, two characters are speaking, I already (I would hope) have some sense of the characters themselves – who they are, what they usually sound like when they speak, what they bring to their relationship with each other. For instance, if I’m writing a Thieftaker story and have Ethan interacting with Sephira, I already know that Ethan will be defensive and wary of her motives, but also willing to stand up for himself. I know that Sephira will be mocking and rude. She will use sexual innuendo to try to keep him off balance, and she will be driven always by greed and ambition. And they will have their conversation against a backdrop of extended enmity, rivalry, mistrust, but also familiarity and grudging respect. Knowing all that helps me find the right tone. Obviously, if Ethan was interacting with, say Diver, or Sam Adams, the equations would be quite different. The point is, knowing these things up front is incredibly important.

Second, I will have in mind throughout the conversation exactly what each character wants out of this particular encounter. I know that some of you are dedicated pantsers – you don’t like to plan any part of your books. And actually, when it comes to writing dialogue, I do as little outlining as possible, and I never plan ahead of time what actual words the characters will say. But this isn’t about planning or pantsing. This is about understanding our characters’ motives, and we should always be aware of that. Motive is particularly important in scenes with dialogue, because motive allows us to direct the conversation without making any of it sound predetermined. So knowing what every character privy to the conversation wants to get out of the exchange is crucial to the scene’s success.

Finally, as I write, I speak the dialogue. Or, more accurately, I carry on the conversation in my head, and then transcribe it into the manuscript, line by line. I tend to speak as I write anyway – if you were to watch me write, you’d realize that I am constantly sub-vocalizing everything. But I find the practice especially helpful when writing dialogue. If the words come naturally to me in the course of “conversing” on behalf of the characters, chances are it will read well on the page.

A couple of other things to keep in mind. Again, if you listen to people speaking in the course of everyday conversation, you’ll notice that we almost never call each other by name. As an experiment, try ending every other sentence in a real-life conversation with the name of the person you’re talking to. It sounds utterly ridiculous. So resist the urge to use names in your written dialogue. We all do it WAY more than we should. It is one of the first things I get rid of in revisions. I’m not saying don’t do it ever. But once in an entire scene is plenty.

Contractions: If you are writing in a world in which contractions do not exist, or if you have certain characters who never use contractions, do not use them. (See what I did there?) Otherwise, use ‘em. We all speak with contractions, and they help to make our words sound informal and natural. They’ll do the same for your characters.

Remember, you want your dialogue to sound as believable and unforced as possible, and at the same time, you want it to accomplish specific tangible things for your narrative. Yes, that’s a fine balance to strike, but with practice and a bit of forethought you can absolutely do it.

Next week, dialogue attribution!

Keep writing!