Filler Words and Dialog

Filler words are words that writing blogs tell you to eliminate from your writing. Most of the time, it’s good advice. But not always.

Let’s start with some sample sentences.

If you need help, then ask for it.

If you need help, ask for it.

You know, I was going to write about interaction, but I’ve gotten totally bogged down in the way that “then” conveys emotion to me. Am I alone in finding that the first sentence contains exasperation while the second one is a simple statement? I can’t read the first one in my head without giving it a dose of impatient annoyance, while the second one sounds like a simple statement that could be delivered gently. And the only difference, of course, is the word, ‘then.’ Weird.

Ahem, but moving on, my point is that tighter writing is better writing and so most often, sentence #2 is the better sentence. The more filler words you can eliminate, the faster the read, and for today’s audiences, faster is better.

Except that interaction requires a reciprocal action or influence, a back-and-forth, and sometimes some of those filler words are good at making the relation between cause-and-effect clearer. Not always! But sometimes. Let’s take a look:

I tried to get away. He jumped in front of me. I turned and ran.

I tried to get away, then he jumped in front of me, so I turned and ran.

In the second story, the filler words show you the flow of the action, and how the actions influenced one another. In this case, (IMO) the more tightly-written story is not the better story. Some filler words are almost always bad (‘very’ comes to mind) but if the words you use enhance the sense of interaction in your story, of reciprocal movement, they may be worth keeping.

So, believable stories include interaction. They also include criteria #6, reproductions of speech. In other words, dialog. This is an important criteria, in my opinion, but also so obvious that I’ve got almost nothing to say about it.

A quick example:

We talked about what we wanted for dinner but couldn’t agree on anything.

I asked him, “What do you want for dinner?” but he said, “Oh, I don’t know, what do you want?” I answered, “Not again. Can’t you ever just choose?”

The latter is a more compelling story. To make your stories more believable, you should put words in people’s mouths. That said, in the example, I included conflict without even thinking about it, because conflict makes dialog interesting. A story where characters exchange several minutes of small talk might come across as true, but the truth can be boring.

Never let believable trump interesting. 🙂

Next time: Five criteria in one shot, because they all boil down to “weird.”


2 thoughts on “Filler Words and Dialog

  1. True story below:
    My mom: “Let’s stop and get dinner somewhere since it’s our anniversary.”
    My dad: “Only if you decide where we’re going.”
    A few minutes of quiet while mom thinks.
    My mom: “Okay either Sirloin Stockade or Cracker Barrel.”
    My dad: “Let’s go home.”

    If you knew my mom,you’d understand. She will drive you crazy with her inability to make decisions or choices.

    In case you’re wondering, we passed those places but before we got home she had talked him into a local restaurant called the Four Seasons.

  2. I definitely know people like that. My ex was worse, though–he’d say, “choose a place,” and I’d say, “okay, X” and he’d say, “oh, not there, reason why” and I’d say, “okay, you decide,” and he’d say, “No, you choose, you never choose.” Um, yeah, because you always reject my suggestions. There’s a lot of potential conflict lurking in restaurant choices!

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