Monday, January 14

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, January 14, 2013 8 comments

In my ongoing series on reducing bloat (aka revising "overwriting"), we've looked at eliminating tangents and sentence-level wordiness. Today, we'll look at "sins of the tongue"--that is, types of overwriting that crop up in dialogue.

Softening phrases

Indirectness can be an effective way of showing a character’s non-confrontational nature or anxiety or indecision. Or it can simply be your anxiety appearing on the page. Take care to limit how many softening phrases you use.

Some common softeners to search for: maybe, might, seem, just, like, kind of, sort of, a bit, a little, tends to, as it were, you know, I think, I guess, I don't know.

Sample 1
He seemed kind of like, you know, maybe a bit of whiner.

Your best fix for this verbosity is to simply trim. Pick the phrase that best fits your voice.
He's kind of a whiner.
He seems whiny.

Or be direct:
He's a whiner.

Sample 2
Jared told Nate, “I think maybe we sort of like each other a little. I don’t know.”

Body language can stand in for some of the softening:
Jared shrugged. “We like each other a little.”

So can narrated action:
“We like each other,” Jared told Nate, but there was Lia dancing with the neckless linebacker.

Or try internal thought:
“We like each other,” Jared told Nate. At least in bio, where there were no neckless linebackers to hit on Lia.

The idea here is to mix techniques. What makes something overwritten is repetitious abuse of a single technique. Make sense?

Verbal tics

In an effort to make dialogue sound authentic, many beginning writers transcribe real conversations. Unfortunately, this makes for very annoying reading. Your goal should be verisimilitude--"like reality"--that reflects some of a speaker's peculiar turns of phrase without going overboard.

Some common tics to look out for: like, just, totally, literally, you know.

Sample (college student I overheard in elevator):
"Like, omigosh that dude is like, you know, so totally friggin bizarro freak-boy weird."

She has some colorful lingo here, but tends to gush and repeat herself. Some trims do the trick:
"That dude? Total freak boy."
"You see that friggin bizarre dude?"

Remember that "book speech" should be more efficient and compact than real speech. Use verbal tics like hot peppers in a sauce--just enough to add flavor. Too much, and it's inedible.

Evasive maneuvers

Perhaps you have a character who tries to evade truth telling by going on long-winded tangents. In early drafts, I let my MC do just that. The trick for revision has been to represent this in a way that gets the idea across without being tiresome to read. I've found it's definitely a case where telling works better than showing.

Overwritten example from an early draft (brace yourself, it's a doozy):

“Well, it was a total nightmare getting here,” I say. “We got into a holding pattern over Heathrow and I wanted to get out of my seat so bad. They cram you in there like a pack of Crayolas. I wish I could have taken my legs off and stowed them in the overhead bin. The guy in front of me had his head practically in my lap most of the way and there was this Amazon warrior princess sitting across the aisle from me who must work for the WNBA or something. She was huge. Her legs were sticking way out in the aisle and people kept tripping over her giant feet and falling on me. This one kid tripped and dropped a handful of superballs, and they bounced and ricocheted all over the place. If almost everyone hadn’t been asleep, it would have been total pandemonium. After we finally landed and got luggage, I had to go through customs all alone because the rest of my family are citizens. So I end up behind this bunch of drunk college students who danced around and sang ‘Born in the USA’ at the top of their lungs. Some of them got hauled off by security. I hope they got strip-searched, stupid goons. By the time I find my grandparents, I have a raging headache, but there was nowhere to get coffee. My grandfather is Mr. Fit and Spry, so he’s like, ‘let’s pop on the Tube, we’ll get to King’s Cross in no time.’ King’s Cross is the rail station with trains that go up to the northeast and Scotland. It was in Harry Potter. You know, platform 9 ¾? There’s a sign for platform 9 ¾, but they keep a luggage trolley in front of it so no crazy kids run into the wall and crack their heads open. Anyway, the tube ride is like an hour long, and this was New Year’s Day. So in addition to hung-over people who had been partying all night, the train’s packed with suburbanites heading to the city to hit the post-holiday sales. Of course, everyone’s totally annoyed to have to climb over our fat suitcases, but they’d never say anything. The British never do. They just sigh a lot, glare and generally look ticked off.”

“I wondered when you were going to pause for breath."

Dreadful, right? My reader certainly wouldn't have the patience to wade through Dani's random babbling about things with no significance to the plot or this scene.

I repaired this using narrative summary, then transition back to dialogue:

I launch into a long-winded story about my travel woes: the cramped flight, rowdy jerks in line with me at customs, endless rides on the Tube and train, my uncle’s crazy driving. How I wish I'd beamed straight to Ashmede, like they do on Star Trek.

He laughs. “Don’t get your hopes up. No one could survive being atomically deconstructed. It’s a bogus concept altogether.”

The key is to discern what you most want to communicate. In my case, it wasn't the content of Dani's babbling that mattered, it was action of babbling itself that showed her anxiety and duplicity. Remember that not all telling is evil. It has a place in your toolbox.

Which of these areas trips you up? Any other helpful hints to add?
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  1. I love your new series, Laurel. I know I'm guilty of the softening with body language, thought often I do that on purpose.

    I'll keep this post in mind when I edit my new WIP. :)

    1. Softening with body language is better than throwing in one softening phrase on top of another. But any technique done too often can lose its punch. Variety is good.

  2. I see where you're going with the softening ideas. A writing instructor once told me to stay away from indecisive words such as seem. "Either he/she did it or not." But I think you present a strong case for using this tactic in creative certain types of characters.

    1. Context is everything. In business writing, it looks indecisive to use softening phrases. In fiction, it communicates something about the person, which might better build the characterization than blatantly telling the reader "Bob is wishy-washy". My point here was to make Bob's wishy-washiness clear but not overdone to the point your reader wants to shoot him (or you, the author). :-)

  3. Ah, yes, tell vs. show. I just had a lesson in this from my marvelous crit partner. I use dialogue effectively (So she says) but every once in awhile, she says I get long winded and redundant. it's a curse for me in real life, so no wonder I use it in my writing.

    1. Show and tell is a delicate balance. Notice that I don't tell the reader "I don't want to talk about the whole embarrassing incident from chapter 6, so maybe I'll evade going there by babbling about something else." I merely describe the action, but leave it to the reader to infer the intention. It's a *partial* telling, not laying all my cards on the table.

  4. Great tips. I think it's also important to be aware of the tics when you have characters who have accents. It's really easy to over do that and annoy readers too.

    1. I think it's okay for a character to have a buzzword and/or a running gag. Barbara Kingsolver did it quite effectively in The Poisonwood Bible. You could distinguish the cheerleader sister from the bookish one easily. But she didn't put the buzzword on every page, true. Lay in those tics lightly.