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.

Things We Like: Illuminae (The Illuminae Files 01) by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Every so often, a book comes along that makes you want to retroactively drop the ratings of pretty much all your books on Goodreads by a star, because now you know what five stars really looks like (pretty much all; not actually all… *cough* JK Rowling and Patrick Ness and Laini Taylor are exempt *cough*).

ILLUMINAE is that book.

Illuminae Ray V6FrontOnlyA2A_V3.indd

It’s a five star book. Really, it’s six stars. All the stars, in fact, and appropriately enough, because this is, simply put, a rollicking, gripping, adrenalin-rushing, heartrending and emotionally bad-ass space novel. It’s YA sci-fi, in space, and then some. No spoilers here, but the novel opens with an attack on a remote mining outpost, deep in space. The occupants scramble to escape as space fights erupt in the skies above.

Space fights, people. Space fights.

The survivors make their escape on three different spacecraft, but the attackers won’t give up so easy. The rest of the novel unfolds from there in a relentless and thrilling story that Never. Lets. Up. It keeps evolving, spinning, reversing, tricking you, lulling you, surprising you, breaking your heart, and you JUST CANNOT PUT IT DOWN.

Seriously, when a book contains awesome space stuff and what scientists are describing as ALL THE FEELS, how can you be expected to live your life and go about your normal business?! You can’t — you can only keep reading as the authors build and build their tension to unbearable levels… and then keep building it some more.

And then some more.

Essentially, this book checks every box you could think of, and plenty that you would never imagine. It goes way beyond what you’d expect: it has pictures, diagrams, beautifully creative layout and typography. Its form often reflects its content in a poetic, mesmerizing way; it’s endlessly creative in the way it presents its story. And it’s not a gimmick that it does this, or that it’s composed of emails, surveillance reports, IM chat transcriptions, etc — it’s entirely necessary, and with a story as unstoppable as this one,  you barely notice that this isn’t a traditional narrative.

ILLUMINAE is something we’ve never seen before, and Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff need all the praise for that. They are amazing writers who know how to tell stunning, emotional and epic stories. They’ve made something extraordinary here.

Here are some awards that this book wins:

  1. Best space scenes in YA sci-fi (intergalactic travel, awesome spaceships, insane battles, the majesty of the universe, etc)
  2. Best use of nonstop, brutal sarcasm in stressful situations
  3. Most thrilling novel of 2015
  4. Coolest novel of 2015
  5. Most “when you’ve finished, turn back to page 1 and read it again” novel of 2015
  6. Best Artificial Intelligence in popular culture since HAL in 2001 (that NEEDS to be voiced by David Tennant in the Brad Pitt-poduced movie adaption)(seriously, Brad Pitt is producing the movie adaptation)
  7. Best Brad Pitt movie adaption of all time (to be awarded at some point in the future)

Rating: 

Six out of five space battles