Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Superfluous Words

How much of your novel or other writing is concise and pertinent to your plot, and how much of it is extra or superfluous? Do we really need to say everything our characters are thinking and doing? Sometimes less is more. Consider the following.

Most of the time, our characters are happy to see each other. When they see each other or call each other up, they say a few lines of greeting. Do we really need to show all that dialogue? Um, no. In most cases, readers don't care, and it slows down the pacing of your scene. Cut to the chase!

Wordy Example
I pick up my phone and call Shenice, eager to plan our hike to the lodge.
"Hello?" she says, her voice sounding groggy in my ear.
"Hi, how's it going?" I ask.
"Fine. Just a little sleepy. How are you doing?"
"Good. Listen, we need to plan our hike to the lodge this afternoon. What should we bring?"

Concise Example
I call Shenice, who answers with a groggy mumble.
"We finally get to hike to the lodge this afternoon!" I say. "What should we bring?"

There's really no pertinent info missing in the second example, and it's less than HALF as long--25 vs 58 words. The second example also eliminates the double statements of "eager to plan our hike to the lodge" and "I'd like to plan our hike to the lodge." There's no need to state your character's intention and then repeat it in a dialogue line.

The second examples also Shows in the dialogue that the main character is eager (finally, get to, and an exclamation mark), rather than Telling the reader she is. And yet "who answers with a groggy mumble" is a subtle--and dare I say acceptable?--kind of Telling that summarizes the boring stuff.

I've always thought it rude or abrupt to have two characters walk away from a conversation without saying goodbye. I mean, polite people say farewell to each other, right? But this situation may actually be another place where a bit of Telling is better ("they said goodbye, and he trotted into the kitchen to nab some lunch"). Or just have your characters say nothing at all. There are ways to make it sound less abrupt, and sometimes it's just a matter of getting used to how it sounds.

Wordy Example
He smiled. "Okay, I'm heading off to the gym. I'll see you tomorrow, right?"
"Sure," she said, mirroring his smile. "I'll see you then."
"Okay. Goodbye." He waved.
"Goodbye." She waved in return and walked away, wishing it were already tomorrow.

Concise Example
He smiled. "I'm heading off to the gym. Will I see you tomorrow?"
"Sure." She mirrored his smile and walked away, wishing it were already tomorrow.

Did you even miss all the goodbyes and the waving? Probably not. The gist of their farewell is still there, without all the superfluous details of a lengthy parting. If you really wanted it to be drawn out to show they're reluctant to say goodbye, you could add a few other (more interesting) details to Show they're reluctant.

Yeah. Well. Okay. All right. You know. Sure, your characters can show hesitation when your character is truly hesitant or nervous, but don't overdo it. A little bit can go a long way. It could be that one particular character has a habit of saying these words, but make sure it's only that one character, not everyone. Did you notice in the Wordy Example above that the male character says "Okay" twice? It's not needed either time. As writers, we're not duplicating real-life conversation--we're approximating it, tightening it, filtering it, and finding its essence.

On my last novel revision, I eliminated 230 words just taking out hellos, goodbyes, yeahs, wells, and okays. That's nearly a PAGE of writing! Eeep.

Do you need to run off now and check your writing for extra greetings or farewells?
Are you constantly using filler words like "yeah" and "well" and "okay"?
Do you think it sounds abrupt or cut off when two characters don't say goodbye?
Can you think of any other words that slow pacing and are better to delete?


  1. "As writers, we're not duplicating real-life conversation--we're approximating it, tightening it, filtering it, and finding its essence."

    I like that!

  2. Nice. I've found myself suggesting a great deal of trimming to one critique partner, and most of it is dialog fluff. I spent several years in drama and writing for theater/film, so when it comes to dialog, I'm a firm believer less is more. And its true, every scene should be tightened so that none of the boring day to day stuff bogs it down. I have a particular issue with ordinary every day actions like "walking to" something. I mean, I don't want to be told someone is walking. Unless the way they're moving is pertinent to the mood, don't show me! Okay, done ranting.

  3. It's funny but I was talking to a school psychologist about one of my kids. Apparently my son talks like we should write dialogue in a book. He'll walk up to someone, and without bothering with the small talk, will launch into his discussion. Great for dialogue in a book. Not so great in the real world. Fortunately he wants to be a film maker, so he's all set when it comes to writing dialogue. :)

  4. Love your examples. I think the occasional--note, occasional--extra word still works for the sake of voice, but cutting the fat truly is crucial. Of course, it's easy in theory ;)

  5. I know we have long greetings and goodbyes in real life, but they do need to be limited in novels. Fillers just make the reader skip, and possibly miss relevant info in dialogue if its too ordinary. I dislike important declarations or plot concepts mixed into casual dialogue. When I critique this, many writers say it adds tension, or is a surprise to keep the reader reading. I find it frustrating.

    Thats not to say its always frustrating. Like everything, it can be effectively used :)


  6. Great examples! Every world should count. Easier said than done, but I've gotten much better.

  7. Those are perfect examples. I'm usually good with hellos, but I think I do tend to have more farewells than necessary. Unless the characters are arguing - then it's easy! :-)

  8. Great post! I'm guilty of goodbyes that are too long. I liked your example on how to fix that. I'll take a look at my manuscripts and see if I can apply your tips to them.

  9. Hi Carol! I've been meaning to get over here for ages and well, you know how it is... something pops up and I neglect to again. I'm so happy to see you stopped by my blog! I've been wondering how you are. Hows the subbing going?
    I'm guilty of adding extra words ALL the time. Usually thru countless rounds of revisions I nip and tuck them away. :)

  10. Great post! I do a lot of trimming, but not so much on dialogue or dialogue tags. I think I'm decent there. Of course, I've been wrong before :)

  11. Great examples. It usually takes me a few times to weed out all the extra words, but I'm getting better at it - I think. :)

  12. I was editing in my head before I even saw the revisions. Taking out the superfluous words really makes a difference.

  13. Great examples. Way to tighten up those sentences!

  14. Super post! Great examples! I'm tweeting it. :)

  15. Great examples! Thanks for the post (as if you were talking to me). :)

  16. Great suggestions. No I don't see it as abrupt to cut off the conversation without a goodbye.

    Things like "the wheel's rim" instead of "rim of the wheel"or active versus passive sentences can cut out a staggering amount of words.

  17. Great post. I'm guilty of doing this in my rough drafts and then cut, cut, cut the filler words out during editing. -RB Austin

  18. Oh my goodness, I love your concise examples! I have the problem of being too concise in the rough draft and not including necessary details, but I don't think I do that with dialogue. Now I must go back and look at my manuscript....


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