“Say What?”–Uh, Um, Well, So, Wow, Great, Yeah, Really?
I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the “word” most commonly said in our language is “uh” (or “um” or “erm” or “er” or however the particular person pronounces it). If you were to read a dialogue exchange between two people talking off the tops of their heads, you would begin to feel overwhelmed by the number of times “uh” shows up—because it’s the filler we use when we have to give our brains a moment to catch up with our mouths to supply us with the proper words or thoughts.
Also, when we speak, we have a tendency to start all of our sentences/responses the same way:
“Well, did he do it?”
“Well, that’s great.”
“Well, I don’t think so.”
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to call you.”
“Oh, do you really think so?”
“Oh, what now?”
“So did he?”
“So what are you going to do?”
“So we went to the cafe for lunch.”
We don’t notice we’re doing it when we’re speaking because we don’t necessarily log all of the actual words that we hear—we log the meanings of the words we hear, and since those little syllables at the beginning don’t add to the meaning of the sentence, we are pretty well able to filter them out—kind of like we don’t actually “hear” the humming sound the computer makes when we’re using it nor the hum of the refrigerator. They’re words that become white noise to us.
But when we see them in writing like above—or like in two manuscripts I’ve edited recently—not only do they become obvious, they become glaringly obvious.
In a young-adult manuscript I read recently, all of the characters managed to say “wow” about something multiple times each—whether it was the teenaged kids or the parents.
“Wow! This is going to be a great night!”
“Wow! That was so great!”
“Wow! Mom, dinner smells great!”
“Wow! Jane, you look great!”
(And yes, I had to annihilate tons of exclamation points as well!) After the first or second instance of wow it looses its wow-factor. And with everything described as great, the adjective loses a lot of its greatness.
So as you work on your assignment for tomorrow (yikes! I’d better get cracking on that myself!), be sure to note any repetitive white-noise words that are used in the “live” chatter and whether or not they’re used in the scripted dialogue you choose to transcribe.
In Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer, Browne & King quote an acquisitions editor as saying, “The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn’t work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it’s good, I start reading.”
As someone who’s done acquisitions for a publishing house in the past, I can tell you that dialogue is one thing that can make or break a manuscript. Characters either come alive or are shown to be nothing more than cardboard cutouts through dialogue—or puppets who are there merely to disseminate information that the author can’t figure out how to share through narrative. Dialogue has to be intriguing. It has to make the reader curious or tense or amused. Dialogue filled with these white-noise words isn’t going to do that.
In How to Grow a Novel, Sol Stein wrote: “At its best, [dialogue] has a liveliness that makes the words seem to jump from the page straight into our bloodstream like adrenaline. . . . Dialogue involves oblique responses as often as possible. Non-sequiturs, words that don’t follow from what came before, are bothersome in talk, but add flavor in dialogue. . . . The minute characters talk, the reader sees them. And we know readers much prefer seeing what’s happening rather than hearing about it through narration” (91).
I’m going to show my fading brain-skills here, because I can’t remember exactly who said this, but at the ACFW conference two weeks ago, someone gave the example of thinking of our novels like a movie or stage play. If a character is just sitting around thinking, it’s going to get really boring on that screen/stage pretty quickly. That’s why dialogue, especially in the opening scenes of a novel, is vital. Dialogue is active—and interactive. As Stein wrote, “The aim of dialogue is to create an emotional effect in the reader” (94).
Wow. Great. Really? Um, yeah. So are we, uh, well, are we done with this post?