Redundant Speech, and Why It Belongs in Dialogue
Here’s a conversation I have a lot in my working life:
PHONE: Ring ring ri-fuckin’-ring.
ME: This is Geoffrey; how may I help you?
SOME FUCKER: I have a question for you. (Waits expectantly.)
If you didn’t get it, the problem here is that they’re telling me something I already know. I’m at work; I didn’t figure they were calling because they missed me. I know they have a question. It will simplify all our lives if they get around to asking it without prompting, especially because there are no polite options to prompt with. “Yes?” sounds brusque, “Go ahead” sounds impatient; “What is your question?” sounds like English is your second language and you only have the stock phrases that they taught you at Call Center Training. There are no winners here.
I bring this up because it matters to writers. These glaring, awful redundancies of speech are everywhere. Cashiers smile and ask you “Is this everything?” when you go to check out at the store. (Of course it’s everything — you’d still be shopping if it weren’t.) Your friends call you drunk at three in the morning and say “Are you awake?” (If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be there on the phone, cussing them out.) And you would be amazed how many people write what they think are realistic, literary works without a single piece of dialogue that resembles this ubiquitous verbal filler.
Part of the lack is doubtless due to generations of savage editorial advice. We are told over and over again to revise heartlessly — to read every sentence and consider whether it advances the story for the reader or not, and to cut everything that fails the test. “I have a question for you” clearly does not meet the standard. But people say it every day. If your characters don’t, at least every now and then, they’re not talking like real people. And in some genres that’s absolutely fine — Thragok the Marauder doesn’t need to talk like someone who calls to ask about non-stick cookware because Thragok doesn’t buy non-stick cookware (presumably he marauds it instead). There’s no reason to slow the body-count down with needless phrases.
But for you writers of “real people,” go back and make sure you’ve got some really frustratingly irrelevant shit in the dialogue. Don’t highlight it, don’t tag it with a “…so and so said needlessly” or anything like that; just stick it in there and go on with the scene. If you can’t think of any good examples go spend a day bumming around in public places. Run some errands, go to the library; eat out. Listen to the people around you. You’ll have a half a dozen by the time you go home for the evening.
What idiotically redundant things do people say to you? Or are you someone who asks those sorts of pointless question deliberately? Is it secretly polite and I’m just a dick? Drop a comment and let me know!