A Pet, ah, Peeve

© Sesame Street

Okay, let me preface this by saying that I understand that readers have different interests and preferences when it comes to dialogue. Some of us like the stilted formality of classic Olde Englishe. Some of us like badass cliched quips from hardened protagonists. Some of us like dialogue that's less concerned with authenticity and uses characters to explain complex concepts. And some of us like that "authentic" dialogue.

This squabble is about the latter.

I recently finished a book -- no need to name names -- and while the book itself was a dandy romp, the dialogue, at times, was completely unbearable.

The characters, ah, always broke up their speech, ah, with little, ah, pauses like, ah, this, and it was super distracting to, ah, read.

I realize that written dialogue like that is supposed to make the characters seem "real." It's supposed to connect the reader to the character by inserting the ums, ahs, hmms, etc. that litter our reluctant soliloquies. But in the written form, that dialogue form actually makes speech LESS real, not more.

Yes, people occasionally add ums and ahs and sos into their speech. But when someone is talking to you, those filler words are filtered out by the brain, and the speaker usually plays them down so they're less noticeable. The brain is a powerful thing, and it's able to glaze over the subtle pregnancies in speech patterns without focusing on them to distraction (unless you're a teacher, editor, etc.).

And when you're speaking to someone else, you aren't focusing on the pauses. You aren't literally thinking to yourself, "Ummm," or "Ahhhh."


The dialogue in our brains is very often thrown off once it reaches the mouth. Why? Because the expectation to speak quickly and efficiently has prompted a generation of speakers who would rather say something than quietly think about what to say. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's very rarely an intentional part of dialogue.

When that same pattern is used in written dialogue, whether it's ahs or ums or whatever else is used to break up the flow of a paragraph, the readers are ripped away from the dialogue and are forced to focus more on the pattern of speech. As a writer, you never want to take people away from your point with clever insertions. If you want a character to pause, to think, have them pause. Just take a deep breath. Use a comma, break up the speech with an end-quote and a note from the narrator that the character hesitated. Use ellipses, or a dash ... anything but the persistent use of written pauses.

It's fine for characters to have different speech patterns, and it can be a difficult task to express that in writing, but if every single character in your story is speaking with distracting pauses, readers won't connect to what they're actually saying. Instead, they'll focus on the speech of the character, and, consequently, on the writer who can't, stop, inserting, pauses.