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.

Influence Is Bliss, episode one: Joss Whedon

Welcome to a new series of posts we like to call “influence is bliss.”

In this series, we’ll be looking at different writers who inspire us, and who we love being influenced by. Writers who thrill us. They could be writers from the world of YA, TV, or movies. They are all writers who move us, teach us, and make us want to write like, right now.

There’s a long list of these writers who carry us away with their sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, but always beautiful words. Words that change the way we look at the world.

We figured we’d start with a writer who has been a huge inspiration for years, and even more so this year.

Joss Whedon.

Joss Whedon, superstar writer, director and showrunner

Genre-blending hero. Fan favorite. Beloved creator, showrunner and overseer of some of pop culture’s greatest achievements: Buffy, Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse... Alien Resurrection (we liked it!). And, of course, The Avengers, soon to be followed by a S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show centering on Agent Coulson (“Nick? His first name is agent.”), and, of course, Avengers 2.

What a trajectory. What an icon. What a hero in the geek world. And one of our most important writing influences.

While Whedon proved his action-directing chops with The Avengers this summer, first and foremost it showed just what an extraordinary writer he is. Whedon is one of the few who can seamlessly blend action, humor, and emotion into a tightly executed plot. All while giving his characters deep inner lives and complex arcs.

One of the finest examples of Whedon’s talent is the “meltdown” scene in The Avengers, where our heroes argue themselves into self-destruction. We could watch that scene again and again. It is written with the control of a true master. There are six characters in one room, all with their own emotional trajectories that intersect perfectly. They’re all suffering in different ways, all losing it uniquely, driven by their personal desires and frustrations.

It’s about to get real.

The characters are blasting zingers and snark at each other with both barrels, nailing weaknesses and vulnerabilities, pushing each others buttons like pros — and this is SIX characters firing at each other with machine gun speed as the camera wheels around them.

Don’t worry – it’s supposed to be upside down. This is Whedon turning everything on its head… literally.

It’s like six Shakespeare plays crunched into a few firecrackingly explosive, freewheeling minutes. Everyone’s a protaganist, an antagonist, an aggressor, a victim. As the massive egos showboat and collide and implode, it’s dangerous, and funny, and heartbreaking.

This scene is a masterclass of Whedon-writing: every character’s motives and fears are laid out. The tension builds and is broken with humor before building again. The plot turns and our heros remain true to themselves despite the revelation that they are more than the weapons they wield.

This is another Whedon skill; giving us something real to carry us through the fantasy. Take the now-beloved Agent Coulson; in the shortest of dialogue this previously sidelined supporting player became a fully humanized fan favorite (the cellist, the trading cards) whose fate we desperately care about.

Nick “I watch you sleeping” Coulson

There’s no flashback or soliloquy. Everything is in motion. Everything is kinetic. Because  Whedon’s writing always flows.

For Whedon, drama is not only conflict, it’s rhythm. Lift us up, smash us back down (in the emotional sense, not the Hulk sense). Whedon pulls reversals mid-scene, mid-line, but always keeps us hanging on. He’s like a fighter jet that can turn on a dime, rotating through all kinds of crazy angles at high speed. His writing is extremely agile, which allows him to take us on intense dramatic journeys.

This is Whedon’s writing style (Whedon not pictured)

The Avengers meltdown may be one of the greatest written scenes in cinema history. This scene’s honesty, emotion, rhythm and humor defines “Whedon-esque.” You just marvel (pun… yeah, intended) at his skill.

Of course we cannot talk about Whedon as a writer without talking about his women.  As evidenced by this scene, and by pretty much every scene he’s ever written, Whedon writes incredibly real and inspirational female characters. It is, unfortunately, something that needs to be called out. Because, as sad as this is to write, it’s still unusual. Just compare Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and in The Avengers. It’s no surprise that the creator of Buffy can give us a complex, accessible, conflicted, vulnerable, powerful, beautiful, smart and kick-ass Natasha Romanov. Whereas in Iron Man 2, she basically had to look good in leather.

Whedon and Johansson: intelligent superheroes

To sum up, because this blog is going much longer than we intended, Joss Whedon inspires us to be better. He pushes us to write harder, push each beat further; to have fun, cry, mess with the audience, kill characters, and, of course, make it all incredibly entertaining.