Dialog Hiccups

In real life, conversations are often less-than-stellar. We get by with incomplete sentences, inconsistent pronouns, all sorts of grammatical errors and limited vocabularies. We manage to communicate, but it’s rarely poetic, dramatic or worth repeating verbatim.

In fiction, we expect more of characters. Smart characters should sound smart. Young characters should sound young. The conversational styles of characters should reflect who they are—education, profession, background, geography, temperament and mood—and be, overall, more interesting than conversations in real life.

And yet, they have to read as real!

There’s the conundrum—a word that is perfect for this sentence and rarely used in regular conversation. Real, but BETTER, real but with more zing, and often, more precision…

There’s a boatload of dialog in my new novel-in-progress and while putting words into the mouths of my characters—a clever bunch of people with a wide range of personal histories, educations, ages and backgrounds—I’m considering what I call dialog hiccups.

In real conversations, they are the phrases that help us string thoughts together, cover awkward pauses and connect with other people. One of my friends often punctuates her conversations with “You’d do that too” or “You’d feel the same way.” Both phrases include the other person and reinforce camaraderie. It’s her way of saying, “we are in this together, right?”

Other people pepper conversations with “anyway”; “honestly”; “to be perfectly clear”; or the dreaded “like.” When I hear myself relying too heavily on any dialog hiccup, I try to meander away from it. It’s very difficult to monitor and change your own hiccups.

In creating credible, and yet interesting, dialog for characters, these hiccups can be useful. One character, while telling a long story about her past, returned to “anyway” repeatedly. Each natural tangent ended with a word that enabled her to return to the heart of her story.



  1. I find dialogue hard work, for exactly the reasons you brought up. There is probably no other tool in the writer’s box of tricks that does more work. Evoke speaking style? Check. Evoke personality? Check. Evoke time and place even? Check. And then let’s not forget the reason you’re writing dialogue in the first place…you’re trying to convey some information, but it mustn’t be an info dump, especially in dialogue.

    Gah… I sometimes think playwrights and screen writers have the hardest jobs on earth.

    • Candy Korman

      Having tried to write plays and screen plays, I’m with you on this. I just wrote a monologue and that works, but again, it’s not a dialog in which two characters must reflect their distinct personalities in their speaking styles. It is overwhelming!

      On the other hand—when it works it feels GREAT!

      In the novel-in-progress, now passing the 100 pages in the first draft mark, I’m working hard to develop speaking styles that appear to be realistic, but are actually much more fleshed out and intelligent than most conversations. Of course, as this is NOT a screenplay, I can fill in a few sentences of context without having to put the words in the characters’ mouths. So far, I’m pretty happy with the way things re going.