So-o, let’s take a look at insignificant words and phrases in fiction writing. Maybe you know them [too well]—“so”, “well”, “oh”, “hmm”, “uh”, “uh-huh”, and “you know”, to name a few.
While insignificant words can be found in narrative, descriptions, and details, they’re particularly evident [I find] in dialogue. Writers seem to want to represent everyday speech, to strive for authenticity. I get that. Readers, however, are a different breed. They don’t want to be bogged down with extraneous, no-value-add wording. They want their books to pack punch—to be interesting and/or exciting, to keep them wanting to read on.
When everyday speech is mimicked in fiction dialogue, it actually sounds rather stilted. Odd, but true.
No: “Well, you know, I think John mentioned that the other day. So, yes, of course, I understand.”
Yes: “John mentioned that the other day. I understand.”
No: Sheila eyed him intently. “Hmm. That’s not what Jerry told me, you know, so maybe I’d better go and check with him first.”
Yes: Sheila eyed him intently. “That’s not what Jerry told me. I’d better check with him.”
There’s also that repetition factor. This can be quite effective when used appropriately; when not, it proves annoying. Repeated words or information are the same as insignificant words or information. So-o, avoid them.
Read your dialogue aloud. Okay, you’ve thrown in “so” and “well” and other common expressions. Yes, we utilize those words every day—so much so, we likely aren’t aware of it—and that’s fine for our real world. It’s disastrous for our written one. Remove those trifling, irrelevant, yawn-prompting words.
Now read the dialogue aloud again. Doesn’t it sound better, crisper? Deliver a realistic sense of everyday conversation by providing only a hint of it—less is more. The best way to accomplish this is to edit. Rework dialogue until it cuts to the chase, telling the reader what he/she needs to know. Add some tension or friction, excitement, emotion. A teeny bit of chatter is totally doable, but ensure it fits the scene and action.
If it’s necessary to impart a multitude of details (such as the history of an event or locale), give thought as to how you’ll deliver it. If dialogue/conversation is your preferred choice, complement it with an action or two:
“Let me sum it up this way, folks.” Morris wagged a playful finger. “That estate …”
“That’s not all.” Solemnly, she peered from face to face. “I learned that …”
“Chesterton provided the files,” Larry advised, slapping the desk. “What I suspected is true! The murderer is …”
You get the idea. Create [strong] visuals and promote feeling—anger, sympathy, frustration, joy—to elevate the dialogue. And, please, don’t “chunk” descriptive dialogue into one massively long paragraph.
In the same vein, avoid having characters actually discuss something insignificant.
Pasco said, “Isn’t the sun bright today?”
Larry agreed. “Maybe it’s because we’ve had nothing but rain for the last week.”
“I know, it’s been so bleak,” Pasco nodded. “So, you know, we should make the most of it and head to the beach.”
If characters are discussing the weather, or burnt toast, or shirt colors, there should be a valid reason for doing so. Don’t throw in dialogue (or narrative) if there’s no value-add. Dialogue and the words employed within serve a purpose: to move the story forward.