Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.52: Economy of Phrase, Being the Concentrated Concatenation of Complex Thoughts in Just a Very Few Words Which Must Fit In A Very Very Small Box, With Patrick Rothfuss

Your Hosts: Howard, Mary Robinette, and Dan, with special guest Patrick Rothfuss

Did we have too much fun applying ironic humor to the title of this episode? Possibly! Patrick Rothfuss joins us to talk about economy of phrase, and the ways in which big ideas can be expressed with a few of the exactly-right words.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take a scene from your prose work, and remove all the blocking and dialog tags. Now space out the dialog on the page, and attempt to convey the missing information with stick figures and smiley faces.

Thing of the week: comic-writing tutorials (Start here!).
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Be brief. Expanded version: Let the art or other medium do the heavy lifting. Treat each sentence as its own dialogue bubble.

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 52.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Economy of Phrase, Being the Concentrated Concatenation of Complex Thoughts in Just a Very Few Words Which Must Fit In A Very Very Small Box, With Patrick Rothfuss.

[Mary Robinette] 15 or so minutes long, give or take.

[Dan] Because you may or may not be in a hurry.

[Pat] And we are…


[Pat] Not that smart.

[Howard] I’m no longer allowed to write the titles for episodes.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Pat] And I’m Pat in a small box.


[Howard] All right.


[Howard] We recorded… I’m just going to give you the back story on this episode. We recorded Pros and Cons with Pat, and at the end of the episode, he turned to me and said, “I really wanted to talk to you about writing comics and fitting all of those ideas into tiny panels.” As we discussed this, we realized that that level of compression of information is something that all of us have done. Mary Robinette, you’ve done it writing a children’s book.

[Mary Robinette] Picture book, radio, and also flash fiction.

[Howard] Flash fiction. Dan…

[Dan] I’ve written three audiobooks at this point, intended as audio dramas.

[Howard] Yup. And Patrick, you wrote… It’s one of the… What was it, Rick and Morty?

[Pat] Yeah. The Rick and Morty D&D crossover comic, which was an interesting exercise in editorial control for me. Two IP’s that I did not control, but also writing… Only getting 21… 20 pages. 20 pages and only so many words in a box. I’m also doing a comic, another comic with Nate Taylor. So, like, how… Brevity is the soul of wit and that is not necessarily my jam.

[Howard] My very first convention panel was called Crispy Crunchy Writing, and we were asked to introduce ourselves. I was last in line. One of the guys on the panel was Jerry Pournelle. We got… They introduced themselves and I said, “My name’s Howard Tayler and I’m on this panel because I write comics, and I have to fit all the words in little bubbles.” Jerry pounded on the table and said, “Son, you’re the only one here who’s qualified to speak. I get paid by the word.”


[Howard] Which is one of the best moments of my life. But in looking at what I have to do in order to… In order to fit everything into dialogue bubbles. We’ve had discussions about revision, we’ve had discussions about editing. There are two key pieces for me that I want to lead with and get your ideas on. The first is that when I’m writing for comics, I am allowing the art, I am allowing the sequential illustrations to do a whole bunch of the heavy lifting. Whether it’s facial expression on a character that’s going to convey emotion or background that’s going to tell me whether or not the room’s on fire. That’s the first piece. The second piece is arguably the harder part, which is the pith, which is the compression. For my own part, I’ve found that some of my most interesting experiences have come when I was writing for a different artist, and I would write some descriptions and the panels came back and I realized that 75% of the dialogue that I’d delivered was already now being told in the story. So I pulled all of those words out and put in new dialogue and had way more story to work with. It’s a fascinating experience. With Rick and Morty…

[Pat] Rick and Morty was interesting. I should say, while I have… I was forced to like deal with short dialogue, short spaces… Jim Zub, who helped me script, we were a writing team there. He, in a couple of different interviews, you can find them online, has gotten very salty. Because Jim has written a bunch of stuff. He’s an absolute consummate professional, gets the job done. I am Patrick Rothfuss. Who has kind of never done a comic before in a professional way. But… And he tells the story, like, he’s written for The Avengers. At one point, he said that he had… He goes, “I write for this little comic called The Avengers. One of the issues, I had to write off 24 different characters in 20 pages. Because it’s a 20 page comic. Comics are 20 pages.” He goes, “And then I worked on this comic with Patrick Rothfuss, and…”


[Pat] He goes, “I had to argue… I begged them for another page, so I had 21 pages to write off these 24.” He goes, “Rothfuss turns in his third script, and here we are with 25 pages. Approved by the editors.”


[Pat] So, I didn’t necessarily have the knee on my neck that would have taught me as much as it could have. But also, I really am thankful for the editor, because one of the things you learn with the compression is that sometimes to tell the story you want to tell… I’m curious about your experience here, because again, with this sequential medium, you can’t just add another panel. That’s like one of the first lessons I learned working with Nate Taylor, because we did a comic together years ago for the Numenera game, to introduce the character and the world. And he says, “Okay. Here’s the thing. We’re going to do a script, and then I’m going to do some blue lines, and I’m going to lay things out. I’m going to do some panels. You’re going to approve those. Then we’re done, because you can’t just stick something in. You can’t just add another panel.” I’m like, “Oh, no, I get it. I get it.


[Howard] Then the realization sinks in. A bit of fun back story. Jim Zub and I are good friends. When Zub said, “So I’m working on Rick and Morty and D&D with Patrick Rothfuss,” I may have snerked so hard I hurt myself.


[Howard] Because this conflict that you have described is one that I saw coming a mile away, because Jim… I studied Jim’s scripts to try and find out how to write for other artists. Jim’s got a Patreon where you can look at the scripts that he does. It’s a brilliant resource. I struggle all the time with being too wordy. What I’ve found is that sometimes… We talk about killing our darlings. I will turn a phrase… I just had to do this today. I will turn a phrase and love it and think it is key to the story. Then I take a step back and realize that I need that panel for a reaction shot.


[Howard] I need that panel for a character to say nothing, but to react to someone else’s dialogue. Which means that line’s got to go. Because I can’t make the book longer. I’ve got a hard page count. So I have to remove something. The boneyard is full of that kind of thing. I’m interested to know how these sorts of things play out in children’s books.

[Mary Robinette] So, it’s very similar for me. That… One of the things that you’re looking at which is where the page turn is…


[Mary Robinette] Because you want them to… You want to make a promise so that they want to turn that page. You want to make sure that that hits in the right spot. So then when you’re trying to get in more information, and like I have written a science fiction… A hard science-fiction children’s book, which is set on the moon, which means that I have to explain lunar gravity two small children while still moving a plot forward, and I have a specific page number. I still need to make all of the things hit the right point. So it was very much about trying to compress and having things do double duty in making sure that anything I put on the page was an ambiguous, so that I didn’t have to have a second phrase to explain it. Making sure that those pieces of language were really, really clear.

[Dan] Yeah. That was the same thing I was going to say. My audio dramas that I wrote were hard science-fiction middle grade.

[Mary Robinette] I love them, by the way.

[Dan] Thank you very much. The second one comes out… Will actually have already been out by the time this airs. But having to explain how zero gravity and microgravity works in a fast-paced children’s story means that it does have to do double duty like you’re talking about. You can’t just sit there and explain cryogenics or zero gravity or the Kuiper belt or any other thing. So my solution was, well, this is going to be fun. If I’m explaining zero gravity while my main character is screwing around with it and doing some mean thing to his brothers, then I… Then it’s still exciting, while also explaining what I need. So that making sure that it’s always doing extra multiple things is something we’re all supposed to be doing anyway…


[Dan] But I feel like I learned that lesson even harder when I had to reduce everything down.

[Howard] I want to take a quick break for a book of the week which is not a book of the week. I want to break for it before we moved too far away from his name., he’s written… He’s got some tutorials on the sidebar of his website. Comic writing number one, brainstorming to, pacing, page planning, scripting dialogue, action, and analysis. It’s seven parts. We’ll link to it in the liner notes. These are little older, but I would encourage you to go out and read this. Yes, it sounds a little bit like homework, but there are going to be pages from his comics in there, so it’s also fun to read. I can’t emphasize strongly enough the importance of reading the things that the experts decide to write about this subject. I still learn from Jim when we talk about these things. So that’s, sidebar on comic writing.

[Pat] Can I also just throw out, since we have talked about comics, reading… And I wouldn’t be surprised if you guys have already recommended over the years, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Now, I imagine people who work in comics could have different feelings about it. I read it before I really read comics, and it changed the way that I thought about a lot of elements of storytelling. Just pacing and like where action happens. It was an absolute narrative game changer for me in sort of developing my writing philosophy.

[Howard] Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. That is also an excellent book of the week. We’ll link to that, too.

[Mary Robinette] One thing that I want to flag that is allowing for this compression with words when we’re looking at comic books or audio is that there is another medium that is carrying part of the story. Whether that is the voice of the actor or the visuals on the page. That’s part of what you’re looking for when you’re trying to trim is everything where that other medium is carrying the story. This is a thing that you see a lot in puppet theater where the characters will… In an early draft, people will feel the urge to have the characters… You’ll have the character say something and then you get it up on its feet on the stage and the puppets are moving and you’re like, “The characters don’t need to say that, they’re expressing it with their body,” and so you cut the line. Because that physicality does the job more for you. So, what I find when I’m working in one of these other mediums is that it forces me to really consider what pieces are important. Then, when I return to prose, with straight prose, where I’m just dealing with words on the page, a lot of that economy of language comes back with me and allows me… I know, this is a very long-winded description, but it allows me to be more focused in what I’m doing, because I’ve learned to be unambiguous, because I’ve learned which pieces you actually have to have.

[Howard] It’s difficult perhaps to understand the importance of audio as an additional medium without an example. My favorite is, “I can’t believe you did that. I can’t believe YOU did that. I can’t believe you did THAT.” Those are three completely different sentences. All exactly the same length.


[Howard] All exactly the same length. That’s the kind of thing… Now, when you’re writing for comics, when you’re writing for prose, often you will have to put text emphasis in, in order to ensure that those things are there.

[Pat] What you mentioned there, I realize, now, actually this is true of some of the script notes I’ve been giving for the Kingkiller TV show, which, when this airs, will probably be dead. But a lot of times, I’m like, “Hey. This isn’t really perfectly clear, or this or this.” They would say, “You know, we’re going to worry about that after we have an actor.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Pat] Because… Which again is such an alien concept to me. I’ve gotten to thinking about picture books. Because like, I’m going to show a picture, and there will be a picture and text. Then it’s like comics is sequential art, depending on how you want to argue that, but like a series of picture and text. Then they’re like, “Well, no. The actor will sell this.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Pat] “You don’t need to explain the emotional beats. You will see the actor’s face. You will…” I’m like, “Oh, gah.” It’s so hard for me to trust, but also, it’s really hard for me to give up control.


[Mary Robinette] That is one of the things that I love about writing for an actor. Like, I wrote for Defense Grid 2…

[Pat] Yeah!

[Mary Robinette] And also for Brass Tactics. What I had to do was… Because it’s a game, I had to create a spreadsheet of lines of dialogue that could be delivered by the AI at a point, theoretically, in a way that follows narratively. But I had to write lines that actually did have some ambiguity to them, but that gave… That the actor could make… Give a consistency to. One of the things that, the first time I worked with them, they wanted me to make the lines in my mind a little more purple. We had this conversation about trust the actor. When they get into the booth, when the actors get in there, the lines play. Because I’ve given them space. I’ve given them space to bring this character in.

[Dan] Yeah. I remember talking to a videogame writer at Gen Con. She was telling me that she had to write a bunch of different dialogue options that had specifically different emotions. Here’s the happy response, the angry response, and all of those. She realized that she could cover all five of them with just the word hey.

[Mary Robinette] Yup.


[Dan] And just have them delivered differently. She convinced them to pay her separately for all five instances of the word hey. Because the actor was going to sell them.

[Pat] That’s great.

[Mary Robinette] I have done the same thing.


[Mary Robinette] Not with hey, but with what?

[Dan] Oh, yeah. That’s another good one.

[Pat] When I wrote for the Numenera game, similarly, like, you only have… You have a very small box. Numenera was amazing, in my opinion, because they were doing a return to this older style of game where you had legitimate narrative options which could impact your relationships in the game. Like the old Planescape. This was sort of the spiritual successor to Planescape. For some of the old Fallout games, or the more character driven RPG’s as they use to exist. Before graphics sort of ate up all the… Read up all the air in the room. It was like… They honestly went crazy. You could have nine different dialogue options to choose from, and go in any direction. They really leaned into it. But thinking of that sort of economy, where you want it to be clear to the player, like, the person actively engaging in the narrative… There it was, without an actor. But you’re still on the screen.

[Mary Robinette] Right.

[Pat] And you’re sort of… You are the character. You’re the character that’s speaking. In this theory… How to do that in 12 words. 12 words is a lot if you’re going to do five different dialogue… It’s like you’ve overfilled the box, you’ve got to have a little scrollbar, that’s not elegant. So, yeah, it’s… This is a remarkably transferable and universally useful skill.

[Howard] One of my least favorite forms within comics is the fact that the fontography for comics is sans serif, all caps. There’s a huge amount of information that is lost when you’re text is like that. I’ve found that the tools… And I’m saying this for people who specifically want to write comics. The tools that I use to work around this, first and foremost, you know the whole hit the spacebar twice for the period. Instead of hitting the spacebar twice after the period, hit the return key a few times and treat each sentence as its own dialogue bubble. Because the period can get lost and you will find yourself reading a wall of all-caps comic text, and you haven’t read it correctly. If you lose the reader in that way, you’ve got a problem. The second is use bold and italics. These things, they have to be there…

[Pat] I hate the use of bold in comics. I’m sorry. I hate…


[Pat] I mean, it’s… This would be fine if it was William Shatner reading this in my head all the time. But it’s a convention in comics that started like way back… Like, these days… I really want to hear how you feel. But I feel like we have the narrative technology these days… Not even like to script, like, we are better storytellers now. We… And like Zub really leaned into it, and, honestly, the editors wanted it. There like, “You’re doing a comic.” So he would always bold these words, and I would kind of… In my editorial pass, I would go through and unbold as many as I thought I could get away with.

[Howard] That’s not going to stick.

[Pat] I got away with a few. But, like, if it’s a well written sentence, you don’t need nearly as much of that. Do you? I mean…

[Howard] That’s… That is one of the tools that I use. If I find, wow, I’ve got to bold half a dozen words in here in order to get the emphasis in the right place, it’s time to rewrite the sentence. It’s time to rewrite the sentence.

[Howard] We are out of time. So ironic that we could…


[Howard] Talk about economy of phrase being the concentrated… I’m not going to do that again.


[Howard] That we could talk about economy of phrase and just keep going and going and going. Homework. Take a scene that you’ve written of prose. Remove all of the blocking. Just space out the dialogue. Draw stick figures and smiley faces, and attempt to convey with a different medium all of the things that you were conveying with those other words.

[Pat] That’s a great one.

[Dan] Awesome.

[Pat] That’s really great.

[Howard] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write. But short.