Using Filler in Dialogue

I was sitting on a bus in San Francisco yesterday morning and two 20-something tech workers behind me were having a loud conversation. It went something like this:

TW1: So I’m, like, no, that’s not how, like, big data works, y’know?

TW2: I know, like, that guy, he, like, he doesn’t know his stuff at all. I think he’s, like, someone’s son or, like, nephew.

I am not exaggerating. They each used ‘like’ or another filler word about every three to five words. When they were gathering their thoughts, they’d repeat it: “like, y’know, when he was like… like… like… three days late with that report and, like, nothing happened.”

At first, it was funny. Then it became annoying. Grating, even, to the point I was glad to get off the bus and escape it. However, the writer side of me processed that this was natural, realistic dialogue. This is how people talk or at least these two people, and many others like them.

When I write dialogue, I think about it and even say it aloud, trying to be as natural as possible. My characters, the younger ones in particular, do use the word ‘like’ as filler. In order to be realistic, should I use filler as excessively as the very real people above? If it’s annoying to hear, then it’s certainly annoying to read.

However, think about what excessive filler words say about a character. Is she nervous? Does he have trouble vocalizing his thoughts? Do trivial words and conversation keep the world from getting too close? These are all good reasons to use excessive filler.

Perhaps the two people on the bus don’t always talk that way. Maybe they were nervous. Maybe they like each other and were trying to play it cool and casual. One or both of them may have realized how they sounded and inwardly cringed, but couldn’t stop. This is the stuff of character development.

Filler words are mindless, but as writers let’s be mindful of how we use them.

For a funny and informative take on ‘like’ and other filler words, check out “The Other L-Word” by Christopher Hitchens.