Do you ever eavesdrop? It’s not uncommon for writers to listen in on conversations. In fact, it’s a great way to get ideas. I do it all the time. Not only do I listen to the stories being told, but also listen to the comical words or phrases used, and I often write them down. But also can’t keep from editing the unnecessary words being used.
Here are some examples of things I’ve heard people say:
“I literally fell off my bicycle.” There is no other way to fall off a bicycle. You either do it or you don’t. “Literally” isn’t necessary.
“The woman was a total moron.” I suppose it’s possible to be a partial moron, but in the speaker’s opinion, probably not.
“The jerk virtually ran the red light and almost plowed into me.” Virtually means nearly, effectively, fundamentally, or in essence. Try reading the above sentence and substituting “virtually” for one of these words. “The jerk fundamentally ran the red light and almost plowed into me.” “Fundamentally” gives the action a different meaning. “The jerk ran the red light and almost plowed into me,” works fine.
One of the most overused spoken words is like. “Like, oh my gosh. I, like, got a C on my English essay. Like, what was the teacher thinking? It was, like, the most creative thing I’ve, like, ever written. If these useless words find their way into your writing dialogue, delete them unless your character is, like, a bubblehead.
Too many dialogue tags or taglines (words that indicate who is speaking, such as “said” or “replied”), can also slow dialogue and distract the reader. When two characters are speaking, tags are not necessary. Here’s an example:
“I hope it wasn’t too bad for you in jail,” Millie said.
“It wasn’t good,” I replied.
“Heard you had a lot of visitors,” Millie said.
“Who told you that?” I asked.
“Dad. He was in the next cell,” she said.
“Johnny is your dad?” I gasped.
“Yeah, he gets wild during the holidays. He stole the baby Jesus from the neighbor’s nativity scene and got arrested,” Millie scoffed.
If more than two characters are speaking, taglines should be used for a few lines at the beginning of the conversation. After those few lines, the reader will get the idea who is saying what and taglines aren’t needed.
“Kill adverbs” is old writing adage. Unnecessary adverbs often show up in taglines, such as “I always clean my room,” she said sweetly. Sometimes they’re used as crutches to strengthen weak verbs. “He dashed out the door quickly.” Quickly adds nothing to the action. Dashed is enough.
Here are some unnecessary adverbs often used when people are speaking: literally, actually, totally, and basically. But if they end up in your writen dialogue, consider deleting them. Herman Melville wouldn’t write, “Captain Ahab literally [actually, totally, basically] had a bad day.” Since Ahab was driven mad in seeking revenge against the whale and doomed the entire ship, Melville would just state that the poor guy had a bad day, period. So would Hemingway.