Thursday, October 4, 2012

Rewrite 7 - Fixing Dialogue, Step by Step

Most of the time, I love my dialogue as it goes onto the page. The characters come alive for me, and I can barely keep up with their chattering, and drafting is a pleasure. Occasionally, the characters get sullen, and I have to put words in their mouths. I struggle to meet my word count. Whether inspired or workmanlike, the pages never look wonderful when, after a cooling off period, I return to them for the rewrite.

I could get discouraged, but process saves me. I know from past experience that going through, step by step, I'll end up with pages that do the storytelling job. My process has changed over the years (and it continues to change). While I used to treat rewriting like an immersion experience, taking on whatever displeased me in each go-through, now I tend to isolate one concern at a time.

That discipline
  • reduces confusion, 
  • keeps me from missing things, and 
  • helps to prevent the problem of having one repair knock everything else out of whack.
Here are the steps I use, in this order:
  • Make sure something happens - Sounds simple, right? For scenes with little dialogue, this tends to occur naturally, but it is amazing how often dialogue does not move a story forward. And this is especially true if your characters are clever and charming. I do two things as a test. First, I title the scene. This forces me to think about it holistically as opposed to as a series of exchanges. Next, I add a subtitle that begins, "In which..." Anyone who has read a lot of older novels is familiar with these subtitles. "In which our heroine Beatrice steals Alexandra's locket." Beware of subtitles where a character "finds out" something or "insults" another character. Ask what finding out leads to. If she finds out her best friend has betrayed her, is she forced to flee Coventry? Ask about the results of that insult. Does Harold challenge Christopher to a duel at dawn?
  • Make sure the scene fits - A great scene can be in the wrong place or in the wrong book. Look at the scene in context. If you've titled your scenes, line them up and see if the order makes sense and moves the story forward.
  • Make the characters distinct 1 - Can you hear your characters voices? Is there contrast? Would you know who was who just by their perspective and choice of words?
  • Check the narrative - I often short change the action, description, and reflection in the draft, so this is vital to my rewrite. It often puts me back into draft mode, forcing me to visualize the scene anew and to feel along with the characters. Once the narration is added, the pacing becomes evident and may need adjustment.
  • Check the point of view - The scene looks much more complete now. Is the point of view consistent, or is there head hopping? Even more important, is the point of view character the one who has the most to lose as the scene proceeds?
  • Trim the start and the stop - Most draft scenes start too early and end too late. I chop from the top first, removing any lines that are not essential. "Hellos" are deadly. When it is impossible to start the scene any later, I look at the ending. Sometimes the ending doesn't truly resolve and more must be added. But more often it dribbles on longer than necessary. Last line - cut! Next to last line - cut! Continue until the scene can't end any sooner.
  • Eliminate on-the-nose - I need to write a whole piece on this. Basically, people are more interesting and reveal more character when they talk indirectly. Check out this nice ScreenwritingU article. Also, avoid at all costs and line that could be preceded by "As you know." Do not use your characters as shills to avoid your job of clear, well-placed narration.
  • Check for clarity - Lots of words now. Lots of changes. Lot of opportunity for confusion.
  • Make the characters distinct 2 - This is so important. Readers love to hear characters. Make sure they still are talking in their own voices.
  • Clear out the throat clearing - "Um, err, well" People do talk like this. A little goes a long way. Fiction is not reality. It is enhanced. Clear out the dull stuff. Beware also of "real" dialect. I'm not gonna tell ya twice 'bout this.
  • Eliminate the repeats - Yes, people repeat themselves. Yes, they echo back what the other person has said to ensure they heard properly or to change emphasis. No, you shouldn't do this (most of the time).
  • Add the attributions - Make sure we know who is talking. "Said" is usually the best word.
  • Read the dialogue aloud - Your ears will pick out the problems.
I'll note that this is not a recipe. I am not concerned if I drift away from the process or change the order. Since I often end up drafting new sentences, paragraphs, and scenes during rewriting, things can get crazy. But this process provides a fallback position when (as often happens) I get uncertain about what to do next. And it provides an excellent checklist to ensure that I've done the full job.

What about you? How do you approach rewriting dialogue and rewriting in general?


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