This blog post is based off a recent workshop I took at Context. The shop was presented by author Gary A. Braunbeck. I found his class gave some really great advice, so I thought I’d pass it along for others who might find it useful too. The following is an accumulation of handouts, and notes I took. His advice covered everything from dialogue tags to punctuation. Enjoy.
- First Rule of Editing. ALL editing should be left to second draft and beyond. A first draft should not be edited until it is completed.
- Had. Avoid using the word “had” anywhere but in dialogue; when this happens, you will be telling the reader something instead, not showing. Consider the word to be a warning bell if you see it in the body of your narrative.
- Character Names in Dialogue. Avoid having characters use each others name too much when in conversation; shift the focus by using a simple physical action.
Sarah looked up from the remote and toward the television screen. “What’s wrong with the sound?”
Ted poked his head from behind the flat-screen. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out, if you haven’t noticed.”
“No reason to get snippy.”
“That was not snippy. That was snarky. There is a difference.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Dolby Surround- Sound expert.”
Ted disappeared behind the television. “That’s snippy.”
(Question: how many words can you prune from this mini-scene?”)
- Keep Dialogue Moving. Visual focus shifting technique (like in the above example) ties into the physical action of dialogue. This helps with 3 or more people in a conversation and helps eliminate speech tags.
- Character and Dialogue. Unless absolutely necessary, never have more than 3 characters speaking during a single scene; if this cannot be avoided, then employ the visual focus shifting technique, or ensure that each character has a unique and recognizable speech pattern.
- Speech Tags. The same rule can be applied to speech tags; use them as sparingly as possible.
- More on Speech Tags. Unless absolutely necessary, never use a speech tag other than “said,” “whispered,” “muttered,” or “shouted.” Anything else is melodramatic and draws too much attention to your intent as the writer.
- Question Marks and Speech Tags. Don’t use speech tags after a question mark and most certainly do not use ask. It’s redundant.
- Natural Dialogue. Make conversation as natural as possible. For an exercise try transcribing everyday conversation and see how real people talk.
- Don’t Use… The fact that- is the most useless phrase in the English language. Don’t use it.
- All Caps. Never use ALL CAPS when trying to indicate screaming.
- Exclamation Marks. Do not use exclamation marks in narrative and very sparingly in dialogue. If the scene has been portrayed correctly this sort of punctuation is unnecessary.
- Character Delineation. Make sure to establish recognizable speech sentences (or words and patterns) for each character.
- Info-Dumps. If you need to relay background information in a story, in a first draft always do so through dialogue, but make sure that the character to whom the information is being relayed A) doesn’t already know it and B) needs to know it. If later you find that some of that information can be worked into the narrative, move it around then; but for the initial draft, use dialogue- it keeps the momentum going and puts the reader into the position of identifying with the character who’s getting this information.
- More on Info Dumps. Restrict yourself to 3 sentences of info dump if there is no other way to get the information to the reader.
- Profanity. Always remember that profanity can be a powerful tool if employed properly; it is simple violence without physical action in the moment. It either replaces violence or foreshadows it. Any other use is simply superfluous and comes off as a cheap element used for shock value.
- Paragraph Dialogue. Simple rule here: action always remains with the speaker. If another character is doing something after the other person is speaking, that sentence or section of writing needs to go into a different paragraph.
- Story Mood. First establish mood before putting in description.
- Description. When describing something try using how the description makes the character feels and add a few actual details to flesh out the description.
- Don’t Be Wordy. If you have something simple and direct to say, say it simply and directly. Don’t write around something or pad it with unnecessary words.
- Clarity. Know exactly what you are trying to convey before starting a scene.
- Start with Action. Get right in the middle of a story, show don’t tell.
- Character Name. Using the first name (full name) of a character is acceptable at the beginning of the story, but no more than that, unless another character has a reason to address said person by full name.
- The ly Rule. Any time you use an ly word, use it sparingly and make sure it doesn’t modify a word.
- Word and Phrase Repetition. The repetition of a word or phrase can be done deliberately and well. It can create a very intense emphasis to words or phrases.
- Do not edit as you go along. One of the things that can quickly cripple the momentum of a story is a writer’s tendency to go back and struggle with the sentence or paragraph she or he has just finished writing. It’s deadly for numerous of reasons, but none more so than this: it drains energy not only from you, the writer, but also from the pace and intensity of the story, as well. If you feel you absolutely have to go back and fix something, wait until you have finished the scene that you are currently working on and do it then. I personally (Braunbeck) try to get the whole story (4k or less) done in one sitting, start to finish, not stopping to check spelling, grammar, dialogue, whether or not there are crumbs in the bottom of the toaster, nothing. One thing that cannot be added or repaired in the editing phase is the organic momentum– that comes with the first draft and only with the first draft.
- Writing Weaknesses. Recognize your weaknesses as a writer, and then accept them, and know when you have no choice but to confront them.
- Never Forget… No single narrative element in a story is irreplaceable- there is no sentence that cannot be shortened, no paragraph that cannot be streamlined, no character who can’t be made to either speak up or shut up at any given time, no throwaway idea that cannot be expanded upon, no central conceit that cannot be altered, and no description that cannot be toned down or cut out altogether… There is nothing holy in a story after the first draft.
- And most certainly… Remember you serve the needs of the story, the story does not serve your needs as a writer.
I hope you found this helpful. I know I have. And if you ever get a chance to take a writing workshop from Gary A. Braunbeck, go for it. He is has a complete understanding of writing and makes learning about writing exciting.
What things do you look for while editing? Feel free to post comments below.