Editing:World-building

We’re all familiar with world-building in sci-fi and fantasy. The religions, politics, powers, and ancient mythology (and, yes, even the trade laws) that exist in Star Wars, Star Trek, the MCU, and the Potter-verse. But world-building isn’t just for magical characters wielding all-powerful technology.

Loki

Magical character? Check. Wielding all-powerful technology? Check. 

No matter the genre, the world in which your story takes place is more than just a backdrop to invoke a location (like a white sheet behind a stage to show an empty sky). Your setting is literally and figuratively your characters’ world. It has/will shape them, and possibly crush or inspire them.

The first step to building your world (and ensuring it’s presented in just the right way when you’re editing) is to decide how much influence you want the setting to have. Will it enrich each scene in subtle, nuanced ways (like the music subculture in Begin Again), or will your world be so vivid that it’s almost a character unto itself (like The Matrix)? Either way, just like your characters, you need to know the ins and outs of where your story unfolds. What’s its history? Its defining features? How does the air smell (if it even has air)? How does the water taste (if there’s even any water)? What does it sound like at night? Is it any different at dawn from how it is at dusk?

This also extends to culture and society: you need to know the mechanics of how your invented society functions, and how your characters work those mechanics. Mad Max: Fury Road has a fully complete society and eco-system: it’s grounded in details. Utterly insane details, to  be sure, but it’s 100% consistent and feels real.

Doof Warrior

World-building, son. This photo never gets old. Ever. 

If you’re so inclined, draw your world, as much as you can. If not, look for pictures, photos, paintings, etc. that both look like your world, and conjure the feelings you want your world to provoke in your characters, and in your readers. Having a visual reference can be a huge help in creating your atmosphere. If there’s a part of the world that has similar geography, go visit it and soak it in. Basically, do what you need to in order to live there in your head. Then attack your draft and make sure that feeling you have when you’re living in your world is conveyed between the action and dialogue lines, and in and between each line of your prose. Make sure every action follows the law of your world: readers and viewers have an unerring instinct for inconsistency, even if it’s felt more than thought, it will turn them away from your work. For example: if there is no air, there is no rust.

Grab your nearest copy of Harry Potter (everyone has a set of Harry Potter books in each room, right? That just us?), open it up, and see how long it takes you to figure out where Harry, Hermione and Ron are. We’re betting that in a few lines you can tell what room in Hogwarts they’re in, or which shop in Diagon Alley. (Just for the record, J.K. Rowling is a master world-builder, on every possible level — if you want to see how it’s done, read the Harry Potter books, and for a more gritty, contemporary kind of world, her Cormoran Strike crime novels, written under the pen name of Robert Galbraith).

HP books

Can never have too many of these, Harry

It’s all in the details, the feelings that bring you… well… home.

When you’re editing your story, be it script or prose, it’s important to shape your world to feel like a home. It’s your home as the creator, your characters’ home because they exist in it, and your readers’ as they escape to it.

Editing: Dialogue

Have you ever been in such a rush to get to the reveal in a book that you skim through the descriptive paragraphs and just focus on the dialogue? As writers and lovers of writing, we can’t really condone this (every word counts, man!), but there’s no denying that this happens, and that it’s really tempting, especially in YA or thrillers or any kind of story where you just NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT RIGHT NOW. You know how that goes. It’s easy to focus on dialogue: that’s often the strongest component of a piece of writing. Not only does it further the plot, but it also reveals more about the character who’s speaking. It shows you the characters’ dynamics with each other, as well as their perception of the world, and of themselves.

So yeah, dialogue’s kind of important.

Think of just about any Shakespeare play, and you’ll realize that in the last 400 years, the play you’re thinking of has had an unfathomable amount of actors in the role—from the Doctor to Sherlock in one particular case—and set designs that range from historical to futuristic. Every director has added something of themselves to the interpretation, and each crew, from makeup to lighting, manipulated the mood. And of course those actors all made the roles their own.

Hamlets

Yet the dialogue has rarely changed. Even Baz Luhrmann didn’t touch Romeo or Juliet’s lines (there’s some cutting on occasion, but the majority of the lines tend to be left alone). Because everything, from their attraction, their hope and their despair, comes through in their dialogue.

As you go through your draft, make sure you do a pass where you only read your dialogue. Make sure it gives you a sense of your characters—both those talking and those listening—your plot, and your setting/world.

In some ways, dialogue is the spine of the story. And that spine needs to be strong. Which means it needs to feel authentic and organic. Each line needs to hold up on its own. Each line needs to clearly belong to the character that said it. If you read just the dialogue, it should be obvious who is speaking, and it should illuminate who they really are.

But it’s not all about what they say. It’s about what they don’t say. Think about any conversation you’ve had recently. How much of what was said was actually unsaid (yeah, we just blew ya minds!). How surprised would you be if your boss told you that she was angry at you for misspelling her name on the presentation because her stepfather never adopted her and refused to accept her as one of his own even though she was just a baby when her mother married him?

You might wonder if she was high. No one gives you all the information when they’re not under the influence. Not just because people might prefer to be cautious with TMI, but also because not many people are that self-aware in real time. If you write a character who narrates everything like that, chances are, they won’t feel authentic (unless that’s a very, very specific character choice on your part). When you’re writing a first draft, the characters often narrate, very clearly, everything you want them to say and feel. It’s one of the key jobs in the edit to cut down that dialogue, mess it up, make it oblique, less obvious, less on the nose about what it’s trying to be.

 

It’s not easy. It takes a lot of practice. Even if you’re writing novels, you should read a lot of screenplays, because great screenplays are full of beautifully concise yet meaningful dialogue. It’s also important to listen to the people around you. Yes, we’re telling you to eavesdrop. We’re also telling you to start some conversations where you ask all the questions, so you can listen to how fragmented answers can be, and how rarely people directly and cleanly talk back and forth. Call your friend who literally NEVER STOPS TALKING. We all have one (what’s up with that?). You’ll hear some almost musical, free-flowing stream of consciousness dialogue. (Sometimes you need to write long monologues for characters). If socializing isn’t your bag, watch some great TV. Maybe not your everyday glossy procedurals, which lean heavily on exposition and on the nose conversations. Look for shows that are STRONG on character dynamics and revelations, shows where dialogue is a weapon, a shield, a cloaking device, an illusion. Give us some examples you say? Alrighty then.

Gilmore Girls

Gilmore Girls

This show is a MASTER CLASS in how characters can communicate their feelings while talking about literally anything and everything else and doing it all really really fast until the truth comes out. Did we mention the speed? Characters talk so much and so fast on this show that one of their hourlong scripts, which would usually be 50-ish pages, can often run to 70 pages or more.

Game Of Thrones

Ramsay Rickon

No show has more information to hand out than this one (not even procedurals). There are SO MANY old white men to remember, but through some brutal, thrilling and visceral dialogue, you can figure out who everyone is and where they’re coming from without anyone standing around listing their credentials to one of the few remaining Stark kids (too soon? Seriously, zag, Rickon!!)

Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones

This is a great example of how  a character’s dialogue should define them. (And it’s also really fun dialogue for actors to tear into — that’s important). If you watch the show on mute, Jessica is just a grunge girl having a really bad couple of weeks. Volume up, she’s more terrifying to cross than the Hulk, and more entertaining in her self-loathing than Tony Stark. She’s a formidable, complex character with layers on layers on layers, and it’s all there in the dialogue (although shout-out to Krysten Ritter for her astonishingly powerful performance of that dialogue).

ANYTHING BY JOSS WHEDON

Whedon Buffy

Buffy and Firefly are particular standouts, but Whedon can literally not write a line of dialogue that isn’t witty, subtly revealing, and generally staggeringly good. Whedon is brilliant at making even the most incomprehensible of creatures (i.e. the Hulk) relatable and tangible. (“That’s my secret. I’m always angry” is one of the simplest and most devastatingly powerful lines of dialogue EVER). The key to being relatable and tangible is making the character sound grounded, and like someone you could be friends with. Even the bad guys/girls. In fact, especially them. Nothing makes a villain more compelling than the fact that you almost want to root for them. (Well, nothing except a black mask and cloak and some heavy breathing). Yeah, sometimes you need the villain to be utterly, jaw-droppingly awful—(f**k you Ramsay Bolton)—but even then, some element of outrageous charm can go a long way.

So, there’s a lot to think about when you edit your dialogue. That dialogue has a lot of work to do, and it can’t look like it’s doing any work at all. That’s the challenge, but also the reward. So go talk to some people, watch some TV, read some scripts, and make your dialogue really sing.

Can’t get Hamilton tickets? Don’t Know Lin-Manuel Miranda? These books might help you cope…

*finger clicks*

How does a desperate, passionate, hyper-Broadway fan

Deal with the daily, weekly, monthly lack of tickets

To the hottest show and the one you really want to see

How do you fix it, and learn to live without seats?

*stops clicking, weeps*

Hamilton sad

Well, this list of 5 YA novels set before and during the revolutionary war might help scratch that itch! It’s not front row seats, but on the off-chance you’re not a famous rapper and you don’t know Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’ll let you indulge your need for revolutionary fiction! And help distract you as you enter that lottery one more time…

 

 

 

Editing: Character

All you have to do is take a quick look at any Tumblr account and you’ll see how influential a character can be. Characters become your friends, your mentors, your inspiration for trying something you never thought of before. They can feel closer to you, at times, than your own family.

Doctor Who Tumblr

As a writer, you never know which of your creations will click with your readers. All you can do is give each character a whole life. Even if the plot doesn’t allow for you to divulge all the details, you need to know them. It’s that in-depth understanding that will come across in every move your character makes, every line of dialogue, and how they influence the plot.

So, go through your first draft and list out your characters—describe what they look like, know the key events in their past, work out who their family and friends are, even their health. What secrets are they hiding? What do they desperately want? What scares them? And, most importantly, how did they get to be in this story? Once you have those answers, you have the beginning’s of your story’s canon. And the more familiar you are with your canon—the stronger your grasp on your characters and their world—the better your story will be.

Now go through your draft again and make sure your characters’ words and actions reflect who they are.

Giving your characters those dimensions will prevent them from being flat, a cardboard cutout that you’re moving around to make your plot work out—someone the audience will forget. Think of your last plane, train or bus trip. When was the last time you saw someone generic, that didn’t have something interesting about them? It rarely happens. Everyone always has a little something of their personality peeking through. The woman in a business suit carrying a Hello Kitty lunchbox… or the little boy in a school uniform and faded, oversized army jacket. Everyone has something different and unique about them; so should your characters. Make them shine with individuality. Make them as real as the people you travel to work and/or school with. You can do this with dialogue that reflects their quick thinking and their worldview, the way they dress, the choices they make, etc.

A quick, and possibly slightly controversial, note about your main character: While it’s okay to have them exist in a story that they simply witness and report on… let’s be honest, the best stories have a protagonist that influences events, that drives the plot, even if it’s just some of the time. It’s even better if all of your characters impact the direction of the story.

Which brings us to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s a great movie. A perfect movie. But, as Amy in The Big Bang Theory pointed out, Indiana Jones doesn’t seem to influence any of the events as they unfold. The story, as she describes it, would pretty much have been the same had Indy not been there. Now, this has been proven to not be the case—there are multiple ways that Indy influences what happens, but the point is that you don’t want the fans of your story to feel like Sheldon while he’s listening to Amy deconstruct one of his favorite movies.

BBT Raiders

It’s not true about Raiders; don’t let it be true about your story.

Give your characters responsibility and agency, a past, insecurities and hope. Give them life.

In turn, they’ll give your story a life of its own.