I’m taking a break in my series of pep talks on keeping your spirits up in the face of an industry that goes on frequent collective vacations without taking reading material along for the ride, because I have just been visiting with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.
Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, her father spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.
You might say that it’s a close-knit community.
Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.” Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “Hot enough for you?” “the grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), and “How about this rain? Sure do need it.”
But “like I said,” no.
Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of these phrases, real-life tropes that actual people say quite bloody often in my native neck of the woods: they would be DEADLY dull in written dialogue. As would a character who was constantly punctuating her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this sterling piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown on this very day:
A: “See you got some sun today, Rosemary.”
B: “I was picking peaches. How did your dentist appointment go?”
A: (Laughs.) “The dentist won’t be buying his new boat on my dime. Was that the Mini girl who just dashed by?”
B: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) Could be. She was supposed to be visiting her mother sometime soon. She’s not married yet, is she?”
A: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie. Visiting your mother?”
Me: (Seeking escape route.) Yes. How’s your son? I haven’t seen him since high school. (Murmurs to boyfriend, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) Thank God.
A: And how’s your mother?
Me: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you.
B: Give my regards to your mother.
Me: (Wheeling cart away.) I will. Remember me to Bobby.
B: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.
Yes, it’s how people really talk, but it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? It might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the speakers as human beings, or our relative positions within society. And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off, which is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’life.
Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send the entire Little Old Lady Mafia on annual vacations there. Just as real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue.
Yes, of course: we want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf wrote, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too – and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in a book.
This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar:
A: “Oh. You’re home.”
A: “Have a nice day?”
A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”
B: “Yeah. “
A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”
As a general rule of thumb, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, um, or a linguistic trope such as our old pal “like I said…” Usually, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.
“Like I said…” would be a particularly easy edit, because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my old friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice). Yes, people do repeat themselves all the time in spoken English. Is it boring on the page? You bet.
Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are usually flares indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.
My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words. “Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”
Now, since the dialogue in her work seldom strayed beyond three lines, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to “Write as I do”? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own. I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. Because if it isn’t interesting or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?
Oh — a member of the Little Old Lady Mafia just walked into the café where I’m writing, so I had better go, before she starts reading over my shoulder. Like I said, they might not be the best producers of dialogue to be passed down to the ages, but since my local reputation will be hanging on how nice I am to this one until I swing back through town again, I’d better be on my best behavior.
Keep up the good work!