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It is generally considered bad practice to include these in your writing, so what should be used instead? How would you show that your character is pondering something, or unsure about something, without using “um” or “uh” or similar phrases?

Note: this question is about fictional writings, not nonfiction books.

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  • Real people use these kinds of things, but it isn't pleasant to read. They like characters that are a little more clear and assertive (in words, if not in actual behavior). I use a lot of tags to indicate pauses (Maya paused, Tim was stunned, George pondered, etc.)
    – DWKraus
    May 4 '21 at 21:50
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    Considered by whom? A light hand is wise but that's because it's generally wise to depict speakers as more fluent than reality -- it moves the story along more briskly.
    – Mary
    May 5 '21 at 1:46
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    @EkadhSingh: What a strange concept. Leaving things out of your dialog that real people really do. People do say "Um" and "Ahh" and "Erm" and "You know?" If you leave them out, then you are leaving out real people.
    – JRE
    May 5 '21 at 13:44
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    @JRE But then again, writing tends to condense things down to the important information - if a character has to go up and give a presentation at their workplace, surely the author's not going to write out a transcript of every word? That's also, in a sense, "leaving out real people"... maybe it's not as strange of a concept as it initially seems.
    – user45266
    May 5 '21 at 17:43
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    @JRE: If you transcribe all of the "um"s and "err"s, then your character will sound like a moron regardless of your intended characterization. The trick is doing it sparingly enough that it comes across as a character tic rather than "the writer doesn't know how to write dialog correctly."
    – Kevin
    May 5 '21 at 18:32
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Presuming your character has a level of speaking experience that allows avoiding these "pause noises" (or that you've chosen not to write them, to keep the dialog flowing), you need to show what the character does when pondering. For instance:

Eustace paused. With his left thumb and index finger, he pinched his upper lip, where he'd had a mustache like a 1920s film star or 1940s dictator the week before, while his right hand held his cigarette. His eyes turned down and right, a crease appeared between his eyebrows, and he blinked several times before inhaling to continue speaking.

Same old rule: "Show, don't tell."

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    I'm not sure I'd call this show don't tell, but I agree with the rest of it. May 4 '21 at 21:35
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    I think the "show don't tell" was descriptive of his example. Rather than writing "Eustace paused and pondered for a moment, then continued..."
    – Adam Smith
    May 6 '21 at 7:21
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One method that is easy to use and easy to overuse is the ellipsis.

"The solution to your problem is ... difficult to relate. Not so much for it's complexity but because I'm sure it will cause offense."

This method when used sparingly is effective, and when abused is very annoying.

An effective method is to use beats and gestures since they are two techniques to communicate a character's inner state during dialogue or action moments.

Action Beats

"Where should I start?" John's words flowed like logs on a meandering river. "It's not enough to say this is beginning. That misses the reason for why all this came to pass." He beamed broadly as he said this last bit. "And, that is the really clever bit."

Gestures

"How can I make you understand," John said. The index finger of his right hand extended and punctuating the points he thought most salient, his words, not mine. John talked like that, using one word where twelve would do. "First, you put your left hand in. Then, you take it out." He mimed the actions as he spoke. "Then you turn yourself around. That is what it is all about."

Another method is to break up the dialog into individual lines. This gives the effect of pauses and breaks in fluent speech. It doesn't work well in this medium because of formatting issues. But the idea is to use the period since it signifies a full stop but use it on incomplete sentences. Our reading minds will recognize it as pauses in speech.

"I never thought that."
"I'd see the light."
"Of day again."

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    I think an ellipsis is a bit stronger than a filler word. It implies a significant pause, not just a stumbling for the next word.
    – chepner
    May 5 '21 at 13:26
  • One option is associating different techniques with different characters. It helps give each character some of their own personality. For example, not pausing can show confidence, while describing a character's fidgety movements during a pause can reveal awkwardness or duplicity. Revealing a character's thoughts in those moments can be used to convey intelligence. For the opposite effect you can even put in the "er" and "um" syllables you would normally avoid. But a lot of the time you can just write past those pauses for the same kind of reason you don't show a character using the bathroom. May 5 '21 at 14:17
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It is generally considered bad practice to include these in your writing

It is? I use it sparingly as a form of showing. It's one of many ways to show a character lacks confidence or is thinking hard about what they say next.

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    I agree with this frame challenge. It's bad practice to include "um" et al when transcribing a real-world speech or when writing in third person, but I think including these filler words could be highly effective for characterization when used in a fictional dialog. e.g. you simply cannot correctly express the character of Dr. Ian Malcolm without the "uh" in "Life, uh, finds a way." May 5 '21 at 19:24

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