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Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 31: Line Editing Dialogue

Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 31: Line Editing Dialogue


Key Points: Look at various ways to rewrite, and consider which works best for your purposes. Dialogue is an imitation of speech that feels realistic, not a transcript. Consider the voice of the character. Watch out for said-bookisms, adverbs (aka Tom Swifties), and "seem to"s. Make sure snappy retorts snap.

[Brandon] All right. We're going to, unfortunately, be looking at my first book again. Which if you...
[Howard] It was a lot of fun last time.
[Brandon] Yes, it was a lot of fun, and cringe inducing. This is a book that I wrote when I was still a teenager, so that you know. There are actually two books named White Sands, by the way. I rewrote this many years later, and it's much better. It's still not really good, but it's much better than this. Last time we spent a whole long time talking about my terrible descriptions. Now we're going to get into some dialogue. We thought that we would want to line edit some dialogue.
[Dan] Let's set some quick ground rules, in case somebody missed the last one. For line editing purposes, we're assuming that this book has already been content editing and that we like it. Now we're just polishing it up. We're shortening things, we're making it tighter and punchier.
[Howard] Story's good, we just need to... yeah, polish it.

[Brandon] Well, story is not changing. We're not going to say if it's good or not, what we're looking at just making the language tighter, and making the dialogue better. So we're jumping forward to the first scene in the book where there is dialogue. I'm just going to read it, and we're going to let the guys take a look at it and see what they can do. The dialogue begins, "I hate it. It just sits there staring at us. It won't be satisfied until we're all burnt to little crisps and blown away." There is no tag.
[Dan] I don't know. I kind of like that line, actually.
[Howard] "I hate it" is strong.
[Brandon] "It just sits there staring at us."
[Dan] "It just sits there staring at us." That's also good.
[Brandon] "It won't be satisfied until we're all burnt to little crisps and blown away."
[Howard] Okay. So the character is anthropomorphizing something, and...
[Dan] Probably the sun.
[Brandon] I'm pretty sure it's the sun, but we don't find out that for a little while, which might be a problem. Let me read the next line. "I wouldn't stare at it too long if I were you, " Chris mumbled. "It can't be good for your eyes." The other girl, Stace, stumbled back under the tarp's protective cover, where the shade provided a slight respite from the heat. Groaning, she flopped onto the mat next to Chris and murmured, "I wish we could just go home."
[Howard] Okay. The "I wouldn't stare at it too long?" I wouldn't stare back... if we establish that it just sits there staring at us, "don't stare back, you'll go blind." Whatever. That is nicely symmetrical, and I think funny. There's a little bit of character humor in there.
[Brandon] Okay. That's actually very clever. Because I was looking at that line and saying, "Well, I just double used stare. I need to cut that." But what you're saying is essentially to hang a lantern on the concept and make it a riposte.
[Dan] Now, I know we're looking at dialogue specifically in this episode, but the line you read that felt like it really needed work was the little attribution in between the dialogue.
[Howard] The Stacy stumbling?
[Brandon] Yeah. Stumbling. I don't know why she's stumbling here. I think it's to indicate that she's just...
[Dan] Really tired and hot?
[Howard] Delirious and exhausted?
[Brandon] Right. But it doesn't seem from the rest of the scene that she is. So that would definitely need to be edited. I would probably... you know, the I wouldn't stare back at it? I think the, "Well, don't stare back. It'll hurt your eyes." Would be a more active sentence to use. We could lose the, "It can't be good for your eyes." I mean, "I wouldn't stare back...", "it can't be good..." We've got kind of some really weak sentence building in there.
[Dan] And "if I were you" is unnecessary.
[Brandon] Right. "I wish we could just go home." Next line. "Well, unless you plan to head back by yourself, that's not likely to happen."
[Dan] See, that "well" is unnecessary, but I put them in all the time.
[Brandon] People say them. We're getting into this. We talked about dialogue before...
[Dan] Yeah. And that's the problem here.
[Howard] Just because you say it doesn't mean you should write it.
[Brandon] Right. But sometimes you want to... when you're doing dialogue, we want to blend this sort of line. We want to make it feel like it's realistic, but not actually imitate it.
[Howard] Oh, I agree completely. I just don't think this is the right side of the blend.
[Dan] In this case, I agree. I think it could go.
[Howard] They're having an argument.
[Brandon] So you would cut the "well" to keep the argument pacing moving? I'm looking at the "that's not likely to happen" which is yet another of the same construction from before. "I wouldn't stare back at it." "It can't be good." "That's not likely." They're all none of them alone I really, really egregious sin, but all of them together are making a very pervasive feel for this character.
[Dan] Well...
[Howard] So the first character says, "I wish we could just go home." Second character says?
[Brandon] "Unless you plan to head back by yourself, that's not likely to happen." And "that's not likely to happen" also... you'll notice a lot of times in dialogue or in narrative, a writer... a new writer like myself during this time... "that's not likely to happen" is kind of using a vague reference to what's happening before, where if you could make it more strong...
[Howard] Let's make it stronger then. They're having an argument about going home. "I wish we could just go home." "We can't. You can go home by yourself. But I'm going this way."
[Brandon] Right. I don't think that... I think that what's happening here though is she's saying you can't... I think I would rewrite the sentence to something like, "Well, unless you can swim..." or "unless you intend to go and hire your own caravan to drive yourself off..." give it a more active... I don't think she...
[Howard] Oh, if they're part of a caravan, then...
[Brandon] Yeah. I don't remember well enough to know what's happening here, but I think what that sentence is trying to say is unless you're going to do this really stupid thing that's pretty much impossible, you better just suck it up and bear it. I feel like saying it that way would be better.
[Dan] Now, the one thing that I do like about the way this conversation has been written thus far is that the one voice that keeps using the passive is also phrasing everything as a negative. Which actually gives kind of a nice feel for the character. The sentences don't work as they are, not I would look carefully if we had the time for ways to preserve that phrasing everything as a negative instead of a positive.
[Brandon] Yeah. What I would really look to do is see was I doing this intentionally for this character or is this... is everyone going to sound the same or does this character sound distinctive? If they do sound distinctive, it's okay to keep a lot of these things as their voice. If this is the way the character always phrases things... you're going to like the next one, because in the next one, I make a classic mistake. "I know," Stace returned with a quiet sigh. Then looking over at Chris's work, she continued, "Any luck?" The "returned"...
[Howard] [whistle]
[Brandon] Is our said-bookism. Which you definitely don't... returned is a bad one to use. Let's just strike that one from your vocabulary if you're listening. There are some that are okay to use... don't use that one. Unless you are really having an argument...
[Howard] The character saying "I know" is Stacy? Do we want to keep the sigh?
[Brandon] I... maybe...
[Dan] Maybe.
[Brandon] Stacy gave a quiet sigh.
[Howard] Stacey sighed quietly. "I know."
[Dan] I just wish we could.
[Brandon] "Any luck?" Chris shook her head distractedly. Using a lot of adverbs... adjectives that one is. No, that's an adverb.
[Howard] "Any luck?" The one thing... I would actually consider using a spoken dialogue thing... "so, any luck?" Because that establishes the change from the sigh to the I'm now going to pay attention to what you're doing.
[Brandon] That's a good point.
[Dan] That's a case where you do need the extra beat there to make the dialogue flow.
[Brandon] Right. In fact, you could probably cut the "looking over at Chris's work, she continued" if you just put in the "so."
[Howard] "So, any luck?"

[Brandon] All right. Before we continue, let's go ahead and break right here. Let's do our book of the week. I'm going to go ahead and do this weeks book. It's really more... it's actually a play. But audible has a... copies of The Importance of Being Earnest which has been dramatized. There's actually like several copies of it you can get on audible. I would highly recommend if you're trying to work on some witty, snappy dialogue, you look at some Oscar Wilde.
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Brandon] When I was trying to write Warbreaker, one of the things I did was go to Oscar Wilde and say, "What is he doing?" Break apart his dialogue, his retorts, and all of these things, and see if I can actually get at the core of it. He was a great instructor for that.
[Howard] And plays are really good for dialogue because there are no bookisms. The line has to carry itself.
[Brandon] Right. And I would particularly suggest he dramatized ones, because they will have different actors playing the different roles, and you can really get a sense of this witty dialogue snapping...
[Dan] And Oscar Wilde's dialogue, especially in The Importance of Being Earnest, is just brilliant. So it's a wonderful example.
[Howard] So, Kick off your 15 day free trial. Have a listen to The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

[Brandon] All right. Back to my dialogue. Chris shook her head distractedly. "This is the same alphabet I studied, but none of the words make sense." She gestured at a word circled near the top of the paper. "This might mean west, and this other one could be the word for horse, but the rest might as well be gibberish." Thoughts?
[Howard] You're doing a good job of explaining what she's doing. She's translating something. She knows the alphabet, she... I mean, it's very clear what was going on. So it just needs to be tightened.
[Dan] I keep wanting to rephrase it to cut out "I studied" but I don't know if we want to, again for character reasons. It would be much cleaner to say, "This is the right alphabet, but none of the words make sense."
[Howard] Well, not necessarily the right alphabet. I'm assuming she knows multiple alphabet?
[Brandon] Yeah, I'm going to say keep the "I studied..."
[Dan] Yeah, because it...
[Brandon] But I'm going to look at is just for a few words here. "This might mean west, and this other one could be the word for horse." You really don't need, "this other one could be..." "This might mean west and this could mean horse." Because you've got parallel construction there, you might as well use it and trim the sentence.
[Howard] The other thing that might work is to use both of those meanings for the same word. "This might mean west or it might mean horse." That more firmly establishes just how confused she is. Now, again that verges...
[Brandon] It changes some of the...
[Howard] It changes some of the meaning. With regard to the "I studied" bit at the beginning... Lead stronger. "I studied this alphabet, but the language is wrong." You know, "The words don't make sense."
[Dan] That's a good way of fixing it, because keeping that "I studied" in there, like I said, it gives a lot of character hints for her. It makes her very bookish all of a sudden.
[Brandon] "But the rest might as well be gibberish." "Gibberish" is actually the wrong word, I feel. Because she's studying something on the page, and gibberish evokes a babbling, a sound. It isn't... She's indicating that she doesn't even know how to read this. So the rest might as well be scratches on the page or might as well be...
[Howard] Well, scratches... she knows the alphabet. The rest might as well be a cipher...
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. Might be code or something. Anyway there's something wrong with that word gibberish to me. I don't know. I'd have to look at it again.

[Brandon] Suddenly the paper was snatched from her fingers with a snap. "It makes one wonder what you've been doing for the last 10 years, Chris," said the thief as he studied her scribbling.
[Dan] Okay, well, once again...
[Howard] Suddenly the paper was snatched...
[Dan] Yeah, we have a passive voice with an unidentified actor we don't know who is snatching it...
[Howard] Trying to communicate something sudden.
[Dan] And yet it seems as if the person doing that knows who Chris is?
[Brandon] Right. Well, we know who he is in the next paragraph. So, with this though, to preserve the same meaning, I would say, "A hand snaked forward and snatched the paper. It makes me wonder what you've been doing for the last 10 years, Chris," and then I would use the character's name, who happens to be Lare. "L" "A" "R" "E". "Lare said as he studied her scribbling." So what we're saying here is that the 16 year ago me was much stronger at dialogue than he was at all of the things surrounding it, because a lot of the things that we're pointing to and poking out and scribbling out are the things that go with it.
[Dan] That's very good news.
[Howard] The blocking.
[Dan] So what happened over the last 16 years?
[Brandon] I don't know. "You can't dodge the subject, Chris..." Oh, wait, I skipped one. "Hello, Lare," Chris said, tolerantly. "I don't suppose I could convince you to leave me alone and go do something productive like playing under the horses' hooves?"
[Dan] Very... ah... once again, another said-bookism, with the petulantly.
[Brandon] Yep, the tolerantly.
[Dan] Or, yeah, tolerantly.
[Brandon] Got an adverb there. I might actually leave that one myself. I think they're okay once in a while, personally... but...
[Howard] Tolerantly? You'd leave?
[Brandon] Yeah, I'd leave tolerantly.
[Howard] With the "play under the horses' hooves," it's less tolerant and more patient intolerance.
[Brandon] Yeah, but passive aggressively is just too long of a phrase to put in there.
[Dan] Maybe tiredly?
[Brandon] Tiredly might be better.
[Dan] Which would explain more of the situation and get across her kind of... the sigh we aren't actually hearing.
[Howard] What's this character's name?
[Brandon] Chris. I think tiredly is probably a much better one to use. It conveys more meaning with the same word. Do you like the "I don't suppose I could convince you to leave me alone and go do something productive like play under the horses' hooves?"
[Dan] Well, we have another one of those negative constructions but coming from a different character, which is what you pointed out earlier that...
[Brandon] This is the same character.
[Dan] Is it the same character? Oh. Okay.
[Howard] It is the same character. It's perfect... well, I mean it's... he's maintaining the voice.
[Dan] Well, in that case... yeah, that... I don't suppose... I don't know. It's a very long sentence, but I don't know if it's a bad one.
[Brandon] I think it's awkward.
[Howard] It feels awkward because somebody has just snatched something out of her hands, and she's patiently delivering a creative diatribe.
[Brandon] What I think is problematic for me is that it's supposed to be a snappy retort, but there's just too... many words for it to snap.
[Dan] It takes so long to say it.
[Brandon] So, currently, if I were going to look at this and rewrite it, I would try and just get to the snappy part faster, just by cutting out words. "Hello, Lare. I don't suppose I could convince you to go play under the horses' hooves and leave me alone?"
[Dan] Or even, "Oh, hello, Lare. I thought you were busy playing under the horses'..." I don't know.
[Brandon] Yeah, that's...
[Dan] "I thought you were busy flirting with the serving girls..."
[Brandon] Lare snorted, regarding the foreign paper critically. "You can't dodge the subject, Chris. You're the linguist, yet she cannot seem to understand the people or read their writing. What use are you?"
[Dan] Well, we have another "seem to" that I think is unnecessary.
[Brandon] Yeah. I used those a lot. I think this is... I think we should emphasize that because a lot of new writers do it. The "seem to"s pop up all over the place. One thing that I want to point out here that... we don't have a lot of time left but... "dodge the subject." One of the things you may have noticed already, I'm writing epic fantasy, yet a lot of these characters are speaking very 20th century. That's something I do more than some other writers do. I like my characters. My books, I explain, are in translation. Someone is translating them to English and they're going to try to preserve the same sense that was in them. But something like "dodge the subject" is such an American or an English phrasing that it doesn't work here, I feel. Even though, knowing the book, these are supposed to be slightly more modern characters coming on an expedition to a more primitive culture, they are not Americans.
[Howard] Let me... I'm going to content edit. If it's snappy, if it's a snappy thing that she says to the thief about playing under the horses' hooves? Maybe his response is, "The horses sent me. They're tired of carrying around a linguist who can't read the language even though we've been here for weeks."
[Dan] Yeah. Which actually... A. new construction like that might work better because, as currently written, heer retort to him was not a dodge of the subject, it was just a "Oh, I'm so sick of your crap." She hasn't yet tried to dodge any subject. So...
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] We're out of time again.
[Brandon] We're out of time again.
[Howard] Brandon, you've got 240,000 of these words?
[Brandon] This is 243,813 words long, this book.
[Howard] We've got sufficient material... and we're in chapter 1, still?
[Brandon] Well, we're not going to do this too soon again.
[Dan] Well, yeah, all of Season Five is just us slogging through White Sands.
[Howard] Season Five? My gosh, we've got material enough here for the next 10 years.
[Brandon] For the next 10 years, you're going to be listening to us...
[Dan] We'll branch off into White Sands Excuses. 15 hours long because this book is so bad.
[Brandon] We're going to do Into the Chaos next, okay, Dan? Just so you know.
[Dan] Oh, Yes. Nice. We could do Blacker Darkness.

[Brandon] All right. Writing prompt this week was given to us by Producer Jordo who really, really, really wants you to write some stories called, "The Importance of Being Earnest Goes to Jail." Or, no, "Earnest goes to Camp?"
[Dan] Or to jail. I'm sure you could take any Earnest movie and mash it up with Oscar Wilde and come up with an abomination that we would all love to hear.
[Brandon] We want a mashup of an earnest movie with Oscar Wilde. So there's your writing prompt. You might have an excuse this time to not write.
[Howard] You've got a couple of good excuses, but please write anyway. Because you're writers. Right?
[Brandon, Dan] Right.
[Brandon] Bye-bye.
[Howard] That was awful.
Tags: adverbs, dialogue, line editing, revision, voice, writing excuses
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