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“Say What?”–Uh, Um, Well, So, Wow, Great, Yeah, Really?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

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?

  1. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 1:13 am

    First, congrats on the book stuff and all.

    I’m really not a fan of exclamation marks. I find they’re so risky to use just because it’s so easy for them to be misinterpreted as so much louder than they may have been intended. On the script I’m working on right now, I only have 11 exclamation marks in 60 pages, and that’s taking into account that this script is probably 80-90% dialogue.

    Writing in “uh’s” or “um’s” is kept as minimal as possible because they almost always read awkwardly, but I never even sweat how many sentences might start with “So”, “Well”, “Oh”, “You know” etc. Like you said, they’re things people naturally say and they’re easy to filter out as white noise. When I write dialogue for movies, the goal is to make it sound as natural as possible, even if that includes using those sort of generic sentence starters. They’re important aspects of pacing the dialogue since scripts don’t take nearly as much time to add subtexts to every line as novels do.

    When everything that happens HAS to be either visible or audible, you can’t explain “John knew exactly what she thinking, he just hoped she wouldn’t follow through.” You just have to do your best to get that emotion across my pacing the dialogue as naturally as possible to fit those emotions.

    If it really reads naturally as an honest conversation people might actually have, you’d have to be super-excessive for someone to take note. If that’s what they’re paying attention to, you’re not doing a very good job of keeping the rest of the sentences entertaining.

    Good post.


  2. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 6:28 am

    lol! When I blog write SO often– I start with: So…

    🙂 However in writing, I don’t think that word appears unless it’s absolutely necessary to the dialogue. One thing I’m good at is dialogue. Probably years of eavesdropping on everyone, but I love writing dialogue.


  3. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 6:28 am

    PS: Congrats with the book. I CAN’T wait to read it!


  4. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 6:37 am

    LOL, I SO do that. Well, I do that in my first draft anyway. And take out about half in my second draft. And begrudgingly am deleting the rest of them in my 3rd draft. It’s funny, going back through what I find. I say alot of Well’s, many so’s, and a few um’s. I’ve taken out most all of them, and the 2 or 3 I left very well may be deleted in 4th draft.

    It’s funny going through with fresh eyes what you see. My characters take a LOT of deep breaths before they dialogue, and frequently gasp. I’ve taken out most of those too:-)


  5. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 6:46 am

    Congrats on getting the galleys!


  6. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 9:32 am

    Have fun with the galleys, Kaye. What an awesome experience.

    I’m late for yesterday’s assignment, but I never get on the computer at night, and since I’m a SAHM I didn’t get out of the house to greet anyone other than family until late afternoon.

    Here are my greetings for the day:

    “Rise and Shine” (To my girls as I flicked on their bedroom lights to awaken them.)

    “Good Morning” (To hubby who staggered into the kitchen heading straight for the fresh brewed coffee.)

    “Hello. I’m here to pick Tucker Watson up. ” (To the receptionist at the vet hospital.)

    “Nice to meet you.” (To the student vet who I had spoken to via the phone for Tucker updates the two days prior. And, yes, I was surprized that I left the ‘It’s’ out of that greeting.)

    As for your notes today. It’s so true that what we consider ‘white noise’ in everyday speech, can become very annoying when we must read it repeatedly. I believe it does have its place in the written dialogue, though, for characterization and a bit of reality factor. However, it’s best used sparingly. Once is often enough to help define a character, after that, it’ll be somewhat understood to those who ‘hear’ the character’s voice as they read on.


  7. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 10:07 am

    Wooo-hoooo on the galleys!! Yaay!!!

    (Umm…I guess I like exclamations, huh?)

    We were extremely busy yesterday, and I read your post – and have sent people over – but haven’t had a chance to comment. Then, late last night, I thought of one thing someone use to say that stuck with me because it was so unusual.

    The woman would start her sentences (almost EVERY sentence) with “I ‘ean” which translated is “I mean, do you understand?” “I’ ean, are you ready to go?”

    I’m loving this series – even though I’m quiet! Thanks for all your work.


  8. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 10:51 am

    Congrats on the galleys!

    I agree with Eileen. There can be a little tiny place for these types of words, but they shouldn’t be overused (as you said in the wow example, it undercuts them–and becomes annoying).

    I usually avoid these words like the plague unless they’re there for a good reason. One character in my WIP is a real person and I finally found some transcriptions of him and “Well” was his stutter word (and “very”), so I added a couple of them in his scenes.

    Uh and um can be useful on a rare occasion to show indecision, hesitation or searching for a response (such as making up a lie as you go). In the fake speech of fiction that simulates real speech as we want to hear it, uh and um should used only a tiny fraction as often as in real life.


  9. Jess permalink
    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 11:13 am

    I’m loving this series too. Though the quote from the acquisitions freaked me out.
    I’ve been wondering what the word “because”conveys in answer to a question. (Ex: “Why do you like New York in June?” “Because it’s warm” vs. “It’s warm.”) Does it make the answerer sound less sure of himself? Does “because” look condescending on paper? I’ve been taking some of my male lead’s “becauses” out recently, and I’m thinking of eliminating that word from his vocabulary altogether. But what I’m wondering is what you think. Or anyone else thinks. Besides me.
    Also it’s kind of cruel for these assignments to be due BEFORE Sarah Palin converses on live television.


  10. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 11:32 am

    I think the Because vs. No Because is a case by case thing with no set rule. If you ALWAYS either solely do one or the other, it seems like that would feel unnatural and it’s going to sound awkward either way.

    But yes, generally if I have a character that uses “because” it isn’t always condescending, but it does generally mean the answer is one they’re completely certain about.


  11. Jess permalink
    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 2:17 pm

    Oh, I’m sorry, but I meant that without the “because” the answerer becomes more certain (sounding). The sentence becomes not just an answer, but a statement of fact. At least, that’s what I thought, but you seem to disagree.

    It’s funny that you compared the “white noise” words to the humming of a computer, Kaye, because when we say “uh” isn’t that the human equivalent of a computer “clicking” while it thinks?


  12. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 2:17 pm

    I think “because” is right up there with “so”, “well”, “and”, “but”… at least as far as a sentence starter goes.

    If it’s not overused, it can be okay.

    I mentioned “so” as being one of my watchwords yesterday.

    Not sure whether I’ll get the homework done tonight. Weeknights are rough! I probably can get the reality TV part completed since that’s pretty much what I’ll be watching, if I watch anything.


  13. Wednesday, October 1, 2008 3:40 pm


    To me, when I read it, using “because” sounds like verification that something is definitely the way you’re saying it is to the extent that no more needs to be said. But even then there’s no set rule. It’s just a feeling.

    Let’s try this…

    “Why aren’t you hungry?”
    “I already ate” vs. “Because I already ate.”

    “Why were you late?”
    “I missed the train.” vs. “Because I missed the train.”

    To me, the first example makes no difference one way or the other really, but the latter has a different ring to it, as if that’s the most detail you want to give. To me, if you just say “I missed the train” you’re saying, “Now ask me why I missed the train.”

    Saying “Because I missed the train” carries the attitude that the character doesn’t want to talk about it anymore than that.

    The way I read it at least.


  14. Jess permalink
    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 6:48 pm

    Hmm…I hadn’t considered it in terms of finality.
    Thank you.


  15. Thursday, October 2, 2008 11:05 am

    I’m catching up on reading my blogs, and this series has been great as Iwork on my rewrites to get my MS ready for the submission requests I got at conference. I’ve already deleted about a page of introspection from my first scene and moved dialogue front and center! thanks, kaye.


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