Monday, June 13, 2005

Editing, Day 1--Speaker Attributes

Happy Monday, BGs.

Thanks for all the comments left Friday about our scene. CT (who commented for the first time on Friday), welcome to the AW (Above Water) side. And all you who remain SLs (Silent Lurkers)—we love ya. Also, welcome to our newbies. As you can see, we tend to have our own Blogspeak here, but you’ll pick it up in no time. Dineen—gee, thanks a bunch for posting the Web site to view my frog face picture. Somehow I just know that photo’s gonna continue to haunt me.

Quick question from ValMarie on Friday—how much prewriting do I do before starting a book? Answer—not much. I try to figure out the important scenes, often starting with the premise and final twist, then working backwards from the twist (how can I pull it off/make it plausible?). Most of the time I stumble around, kick cabinets and pray a lot. In the end, somehow the plot comes.

Okay. In looking at our scene over the weekend, I realized we need to spend a number of days on the edit in order to thoroughly discuss the concepts I listed on Friday. Our brave BG has given us an excellent scene to work with because we don’t have to start with basics—these have been handled well. We can focus instead on how to take a good scene and make it better.

Instead of going through the scene paragraph by paragraph and tackling many different concepts at once, we’ll discuss one concept at a time. Some paragraphs need editing in more than one area, but we won’t get ahead of ourselves. We’ll just come back to them as needed.

Before we begin, we all need to take one big emotional step backward from this scene and its author (whom we love and admire for her bravery) so we can look at it objectively and thoroughly. This is a time of learning for us all. From here on , let’s forget who wrote the excerpt and refer to it as our AS (Action Scene).

I’m starting with one of the easier concepts. Today we look at speaker attributes (SAs). These are phrases such as “he said,” “she yelled,” etc.

I’ve gotten harder on myself about these, thanks to my current editor. Today, I use them only as a very last resort. (I think in the entire book of Brink of Death, for example, I used about five SAs.) There are far better ways to show who’s talking. An SA doesn’t add anything to the scene other than the attribute. I’ve heard some argue that SAs tend to disappear—readers don’t notice them—so go ahead and use them. I respond—why choose a method that merely disappears over a method that could enhance the scene?

My thought process as I write dialogue:

1. Is just straight dialogue best? If you’re working with two characters, you can do this for a number of lines, but don’t push it. You don’t want a reader to have to look back to figure out who’s speaking.

2. Should I use an action or interior monologue beat? Much of the time, especially in action scenes, this will be the best choice. Beats can be very helpful when you’ve got three or more characters talking. And beats enhance the scene because they show what’s happening and, when used correctly, deepen characterization. But watch your rhythm. Beat, dialogue; beat, dialogue; beat, dialogue will get boring in a hurry. You’ll have to vary this. There are numerous ways to vary rhythm, but that’s another day’s topic.

3. If I must show who's talking, and I've used too many action/interior monologue beats and now can't even find a new way to vary them, then I'll use an SA. But I really work hard before I give in and use one.

Our Action Scene has only three SAs—that’s pretty good. But it doesn’t need any one of them. I’ve highlighted the text in red.

She closed her eyes, gasping. If she resisted, he’d make it worse. She managed a feeble, “Vince, please, don’t.”

This SA is there to explain how the words Vince, please don’t were said without using an adverb (she said feebly). A notable reason—you want to stay away from adverbs as much as possible. However, the phrase ends up detracting from the scene instead of enhancing because the words are unnecessary. I suggest simply deleting the phrase.

She closed her eyes, gasping. If she resisted, he’d make it worse. “Vince, please, don’t.”

We’ve already got two beats here. First sentence is an action beat. Second is an interior monologue beat. The “gasping” in the action beat is enough to set up how the words will be stated. Do you see how the dialogue, without that superfluous lead-in SA phrase, now has greater impact?

SA number two:

Vince let her crumple to the floor.
“Worthless piece of trash,” he said.

Here we have a strong action beat. No SA needed. This SA, too, actually detracts—for two reasons. One, it weights the line with unnecessary words. Two, it uses said, which is a mild word and keeps the reader from imagining the words as sneered or spat, which is more appropriate within the context. (Still—we don’t need to say, he sneered. We get the idea without that.) The dialogue can be moved up to the same paragraph:

Vince let her crumple to the floor. “Worthless piece of trash.”

And the third SA:

. . . She searched for a weapon. Bale of straw. Horse comb. Bottle of saddle soap. Shovel. She locked onto that. It leaned against the wall by the door. Could she crawl fast enough?

“Get up,” Vince ordered.

Christy started to rise in a slow, defeated way, . . .

This one falls under that admonition we know as R.U.E.—Resist the Urge to Explain. The words “Get up” show that Vince is ordering Christy. The tacked-on SA adds unnecessary words, which weights down the action.

We could choose to use straight dialogue. Separated from the paragraph above and beneath that refer to Christy, the dialogue would clearly come from Vince. However, because the dialogue is surrounded by beats for Christy, and we haven’t heard from Vince for a while, I’d suggest putting in an action beat for him. How about:

. . . She searched for a weapon. Bale of straw. Horse comb. Bottle of saddle soap. Shovel. She locked onto that. It leaned against the wall by the door. Could she crawl fast enough?

He kicked her in the thigh. “Get up.”

Christy started to rise in a slow, defeated way, . . .

When you use an action beat, choose one that’ll give you the most meaning possible. They’re particularly good when they add characterization and/or deeper meaning, as well as add action. I chose he kicked her in the thigh because injuring someone further is diametrically opposed to the order get up. But that’s clearly the kind of person Vince is. He will kick Christy when she’s down. So this particular beat ends up doing three things: adds action, characterizes, and also works almost as a larger symbol for the relationship between Christy and Vince.

Some homework for the day, if you’re so inclined. Edit one of your own scenes for SAs. Use them only if you absolutely must. Be hard on yourself about this. SAs are easy to dash off, so we tend to fall back on them when we should work harder for a better choice. Imagine taking dozens of SAs out of your work and replacing those that must be replaced with beats that help characterize and move the action in your story. This one technique alone will make a big difference in your writing. (But you gotta write those action beats with punch.) You might post an edited line or two as a comment. Or if you have follow-up questions, please ask away. We’re on no schedule here—we’ll take all the time we need on one concept before moving to the next.

Read Part 3


Anonymous said...

Wow! This will really help as I write and edit dialouge in my WIP. I'll be leaving to apply it to a scene now!

C.J. Darlington said...
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C.J. Darlington said...

These are some great edits. I'm learning a lot from them. I love your advice to give Vince a beat instead of saying "he ordered". What a stronger statement "Vince kicked her in the thigh" makes.

Anonymous said...

Lurker surfacing to say thanks. This is one of those topics I know I should work on but never do - laziness, probably.

If I stick around as you continue to edit this scene, I bet I'll be motivated to get to my own writing. :) Aren't blogs wonderful that way?

Stuart said...

Great stuff as usual Brandylin. I always love it someone edits something and gives the detailed reasoning behind why they want it changed. :)

Unknown said...

Hey! I go away for a week and you finish the NES. Now I have to go back and read what I missed. I see we're on to lessons. Good, good (wringing hands). I try to avoid the tags as well. I've had a bit of a disgreement with one of my partners, though. When I write a character asking a question, it ends with a question mark (having passed English and all). So I simply tag it "she said" instead of "she asked." I see the ? and "asked" as reduntant. Am I wrong? Or should I, if the tag is needed, use "asked"?

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Thanks, Brandilyn. I thought I had a pretty good handle on this, but I just did a quick check and I've used "said" as a SA five times in the first 30 pages! Yikes! More work to do.

Anonymous said...

Way cool instructions!

To the AS writer: Thanks for sharing!

BC--I'm going to commit to applying this lesson to my WIP tonight.

mrsd said...

Good stuff!

Lynette Eason said...

Hey Brandilyn, this is way cool. What a huge help! I went back over my WIP - one that I started today. I actually got to write FOUR WHOLE pages. Not in one sitting, true, but I got them down. I saw exactly where I could tighten and make the words flow and the scene work much better. THANKS!

Oh, and a question for you...I have this really cool idea for a book. Only I don't think I'm supposed to write it. (Don't ask.) Are you ever interested in people passing on ideas to you?

Lynette Eason (the other Lynette on the loop.)

Lynette Sowell said...

This is very timely for me. I actually struggle with the other extreme of talking heads--not so much in action scenes, but how to use SA in regular conversation. That, and how to insert a character's interior reactions. Are we going to address that, too?
(waving hi to the other Lynette :)~~)