Sunday, August 1, 2010

Living in the Third Draft Editing Stage - Dialogue

Living in the Third Draft Editing Stage - Dialogue

I have long known that I am a lousy editor. I dread the third draft stage of any of my projects because I know that this is the stage in which I have to turn off more of the creative process and put on the editors hat. I will often read a sentence, make several grammatical or stylistic changes. Then come back the next day, only to read it and change it back to the way it was.

I’ve done a lot of research, and during the third draft editing stage of The Fenian Avenger I am summarizing some of those topics in my blog. My goal is that by summarizing it, it will cement the concept in my mind and make it more a part of my writing during draft one and two, and less of an edit chore in draft three. But, perhaps if I can present some of my research that can help another writer, then that is a great thing.


I’m starting with dialogue because my writing professor in college said that this was the strongest area of my writing. Now, let’s preface that, because it sounds warm and supportive, like the professor was a mentor and taking me by the hand and leading towards the oasis of being a published author.

I took a fiction writing course in college that was taught by a respected semi-best selling author. I had aspirations of learning from him. I was very transparent about my weaknesses as a writer, as teacher in high school really didn’t teach grammar or how to really write. But I had good ideas and a passion to make them come to life.

The professor’s assessment of my writing was quite simple, written in red ink at the bottom of page: A festering pile of s---. Poor characters. Bad descriptions. Unbelievable plot. Poor pacing. Dangling modifiers. Average dialogue. I wouldn’t read past the first paragraph.

Anyway, that professor ticked me off enough to fuel me for years to prove him wrong.

Average dialogue! Wow – that was almost a compliment.

Dialogue in a story is often mistaken for conversation. When writing dialogue, it’s not about catching every word that is said between two or more people. It’s about catching the essence of the conversation. That may be what is communicated. That may be what is not communicated.

Dialogue may be used to set characters apart from one another. The only distinguishing characteristics may be the way they speak. Following the scathing remarks from my professor about my writing, my stories became almost entirely dialogue, and thus characters had to be recognizable by their mannerisms in the words they choose, their cadence of their words, and such. Much of the sitcoms on television today are still based almost exclusively on dialogue.

If the story submitted to a busy screen contains a lot of dialogue. And that dialogue is snappy, confrontational, and intelligent. Then that screener may be more inclined to read more pages than they may have read if the text contained heavy block paragraphs of prose. However, if that dialogue proves to be clich├ęd or sounds dead, then screener will bury the manuscript very quickly. So, dialogue can help a story quickly, but bad dialogue can bury it quickly also.

Again, the dialogue in a chapter must have a purpose. Once again, it is not there for conversational reasons. Every chapter must have an agenda, whether it is one of four signposts that all stories are built on, or the journeys from one signpost to the next, each chapter has a purpose or an agenda. And the dialogue in that chapter must fit within that agenda or purpose.

For example, in Chapter 18 of The Fenian Avenger Reverend Fitzpatrick accompanies Eamon Malone to the funeral of his parents at Glasnevin Cemetary in North Dublin. Eamon is in agony, not just over the loss of his parents, but because of the fact that the man responsible was reading from Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd…” Fitzpatrick offers Eamon comfort in their dialogue, and in Eamon’s dialogue he shows that despite his incredible gifts, he is still a seventeen year-old and has a lot of growing up to do. That is a lot to convey in dialogue, but I didn’t include the entire conversation, because it would not have advanced the agenda of the chapter. It would not have served any purpose for Fitzpatrick to thank the usher for showing them to their seats.

Tags are another item in dialogue that separate amateurs and professionals. Tags are the “he said” and “she said” after someone says something.

The rule that I was taught was that there is really nothing wrong with the word “said.” Whereas with other words it is said to avoid repeating words too often, with “said” this is not the case. It is a sign of an amateur when a writer finds different ways to say this.

All of these are signs of an amateur, and can be replaced with the word “said”:
…he whispered.
…he spoke.
…he retorted.
…he chuckled.
…he wondered.
…he thought aloud.
…he pontificated.

There are instances where you can skip the tag. If there are two participants in the dialogue, and their voices are distinct enough to tell them apart (which should always be the case with all your characters), you can hold a conversation without always adding the tag. When you do this, every once in a while, you will want to drop the tag in there just so your reader can re-acquaint themselves with where the conversation is.

Probably the best author I’ve ever read when it comes to dialogue was Gregory McDonald. McDonald wrote the Fletch and Flynn series, and if you’ve never read the books and only know the Fletch movies, you’re missing some great dialogue. The books are almost exclusively dialogue and are sharply written.

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