Writing Excuses 4.31: Line Editing Dialog

We return to White Sand (original version), Brandon’s first book, written while he was a teenager. Again, you’ll need to suspend your disbelief as we assume that the story edits and other major content passes are complete, and what’s on the page now only needs refinement.

In this episode we’re drilling down on the dialog, which includes not only what the characters are saying, but also the said-bookisms (most of which are going to need to go.) We prune, we trim, and do all kinds of little things to make the conversations flow better, serve the plot better, and better engage the reader.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde. Note that there are three dramatizations available. Our first link is to the one with James Marsters.

Writing Prompt: From Producer Jordo: The Importance of Being Earnest Goes To Jail. Or Camp. Whatever. Think “Oscar Wilde/Earnest mashup.”

White Sand Excuses: The decades-long spin-off podcast in which over the course of 10 years we line edit this book down to around 200,000 words.

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33 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.31: Line Editing Dialog”

  1. Hi,
    forgive the idolization, but this is my first time posting, and I just want to say how much I love reading all of your works. ‘I’m not a serial killer’ is definitely the best autobiography ever.

    I liked this episode specifically because it was easy to relate to. I’m a young writer myself, currently working on the second draft of my first novel, and excessive/passive dialogue are my cardinal sins. It’s really helpful to see how writing tips can be applied to someone’s actual work, which I suppose is why you chose to do just that. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, thanks a lot, and great show.

  2. I was very glad to hear you not immediately dismissing the passive voice for that one character, because I have a few characters who have very distinctive ways of talking similarly. (one talks in metaphors a lot, another has very short sentences, and one tends to talk in negatives) I’ve never bought that passive is a complete no-no, but that’s because I almost never use it in narrative anyway. Essay training paying off I guess… Of course, if I do use it, I do passive voice in the “by X” style where the subject of the sentence is still around, so we can imagine what’s going on clearly.

    I’ve noticed the “seem” thing in my own writing- I think it’s just one of those things where you’re afraid to make your language too strong at first, and it’s a matter of being more confident and leaving only those “seems” where things are truly subjective or ambiguous. Definitely a good candidate for line editing.

  3. Brandon mentioned that there are actually two books called White Sand. Are they different versions of the same story, or are they completely different stories? (I seem to remember him saying that he submitted White Sand to his agent, at one point, so I’m guessing that was the later version / story.)

  4. Another entertaining podcast, through not as educational as others. I still enjoyed listing to the way you guys interact with each others. It must be nice to have friends you can talk to, and ask questions to about your writing.

    @Matthew Whitehead. It was always my understanding that passive voice was really only a bad thing outside of the quote marks. Inside them your characters can do about anything that they want. If this way of thinking is in error I’d like someone to let me know.

  5. Instead of “tolerantly,” I would have used “petulantly,” which means ill-tempered or cross.

    I must agree with the crew that 1994-Brandon’s dialogue is much better than 1994-Brandon’s descriptions. Of course, saying that makes me imagine a waiter in a fancy restaurant taking an order.

    Waiter: “Would you like something to drink with your meal?”

    Customer: “Yes, I’d like a bottle of Brandon Sanderson 1994.”

    Waiter: “Oh no, sir. The 1994 is a terrible year. I recommend the Brandon Sanderson 2009. It may not be that old, but the descriptions are much better.”

    But then again, good books have a lot in common with good food: you tend to dissect them as you savor them, and both taste better with salt.

  6. Great fun as always, guys. I have fun thinking how I would re-write the same lines. Agree with the above, Brandon’s early dialogue is much better than his early narration, but I would expect that with characters who speak like normal people.

    I like the occasional adverb and Tom Swifty, too, but I’m not happy with “tolerantly” – how about “sweetly” instead?

    I heartily approve of the audiobook recommendation – I love Oscar Wilde – and the general idea of turning to theater for the best dialogue, especially dialogue pacing. I also like the older (as in Golden Age) Hollywood movies – the great old comedies like His Girl Friday or Philadelphia Story.

    Again, thanks to Brandon for letting us see his early work. I am not brave enough to look at what I wrote at the same age. ^_^

  7. This podcast brought to mind a question I’d like answered: How do you go through your editing phases after the first drat is done?

    In doing my own, I think I need to figure out a more efficient method. You mention content edits, line edits, (others?) and I wondered if there was a more-or-less accepted practice, or at least what the three of you use in your own processes.

    Mainly, what types of edits do you do, in what order, what kind of time do you spend on them, etc. I realize now that I have spent a lot of time on line edits throughout my revisions that I probably should have saved for later.

  8. I really like these episodes, I’ve learned a lot from them. However don’t spend the entire fifth season on it, I don’t think I’d survive ;)

  9. Great podcast. I like these casts that are detailed and look more at the trees rather than the whole forest.

  10. Hey, guys, great ‘cast. Lots of humor and entertaining interactions, but I’m going to have to agree with Brenna that this was not the most educational of ‘casts. Don’t misunderstand me, the presentation was smooth as butter (the real stuff, not that margarine hooey) and fun to listen to, but the underlying methodology, the actual why was missing. For instance, from previous ‘casts the Faithful Listener will know what said-bookisms and Tom Swiftys are, but aside from a passing “don’t do this,” we aren’t aware why we shouldn’t be using them. What should we be doing, instead?

    Thanks for the advice about listening to plays, and I cannot laud your choice of Oscar Wilde enough; however, within the context of fiction writing, why shouldn’t I use adverbs as tag lines? Why are some structures better than others? Why should “returned” be banished from my dialogue vocabulary? Why does spell-checker keep telling me that dialogue, hiccough and chaise longue are spelled wrong, when clearly they are not? These are the questions that haunt my soul.

    As a side-question, how does Brandon go about selecting world-specific vocabulary for his characters? (He mentions not wanting to use “gibberish” and “dodged the subject,” as being improper in that context, or inappropriate for that world, but how does he decide which are too “real-world?”)

    Thanks for your time,

  11. I would have had the female character tell the smart character to go play with the horses “patiently”.

  12. Brenna:

    @Matthew Whitehead. It was always my understanding that passive voice was really only a bad thing outside of the quote marks. Inside them your characters can do about anything that they want. If this way of thinking is in error I’d like someone to let me know.

    You’re absolutely right. Most of the advice you recieve that tells you “don’t do x” is referring to narrative, and I like to think it should be understood as really trying to get you to simplify your narrative down and learn the basics a bit with some of your writing so you have a better handle on how to break the “rules” and avoid the pitfalls once you get back into more complicated narrative. I’d say “walk before you run”, if that wording didn’t seem to imply I think we can slack off in how much time we spend writing while we’re getting rid of those practice words. ;)

    The passive voice isn’t particularly in favour even in dialogue, however, and it’s probably the most maligned piece of grammar in writing, partly because it’s used to create false suspense by simply leaving out details we’d know if we were really watching events unfold. It’s difficult to use in dialogue because it’s clunky- it’s complicated and needs helper verbs, and it comes off very formal.

    But it can be important for characterisation to use passive constructions at the right time, especially when you’re showing your characters trying to weasel out of culpability, or being passive-aggressive. :) It’s the same way you can use “seem” a bit in dialogue, really, even though it’s usually a crutch and/or a weasel-word in the narrative- you need to give yourself permission to use those words and structures that writers are tempted to mis- or over-use when the situation and your sense of voice really demand them.

    On the matter of voice, I think an example is in order. I’d usually say to other genre writers that being too true to modern life with your dialogue or having too much slang is a really quick way to boot your reader out of the story. (because when new writers try these phrases, they don’t work them in consistently to the dialogue, and they are too realistic with them, leaving in the parts that don’t help. I’ve done it myself many times in my beginning stuff) But look at Stephen King- his voice DEMANDS slang, and his characters all clearly speak in different types of modern or recent American voices. It’s just how he writes. And he’s great at it, and he wouldn’t be the Stephen King we know without it.

    Ed: I would’ve said she told him *insert new joke* with bad grace. (or even “forbearingly,” if you prefer) That gives you the sense of grudging patience you want, I think, without having to imply sarcasm with the word ‘patiently’.

  13. Several things come to mind from this excellent podcast:

    The best way to test dialogue is to read it aloud.

    And that characters are allowed to play with grammar in ways that are not allowed in the narrative.

  14. @Rafael “The best way to test dialogue is to read it aloud.”

    I agree; but the person reading it should read it as dry as possible but cause what we need to hear is the impact of the words alone, not the readers expressions, accents or inflections. I test my writing in a text to speech program set as monotone as possible. That way I can hear the power of the words and the way they flow. If I can make someone feel emotions through a text to speech program than I know I am on the right track.

    I also agree that characters should be allowed to play with grammar. No one I know in the real world speaks with proper grammar so why should characters in a book be expected to do so? As Yoda says – If characters had to stick to correct grammar, the world of reading, boring it would be. Hum?

  15. I think that this line-editing podcast was around 10% less awesome than the last line-editing ‘cast (though still highly awesome). That trend is likely to continue, and even accelerate.

  16. Brenna & Rafael: Yeah, pretty much, reading in the monotone is your “worst case scenario”, and reading with your own natural emphasis and rhythm is something approaching your best-case. (sometimes the readers will imagine it better than you will, or at least better for them) If it sounds silly before you even get to doing the reading-aloud-in-monotone stuff on it, then your dialogue needs help! :)

    Ed: Yeah, while I think covering different types of editing is really useful, I’m feeling ready for a different subject for next week. :)

  17. @Katya: I’m not positive about this, so don’t take it for a fact, but I believe that they’re seperate stories with similar ideas. I’ve read the newer version of White Sand, and it has the same beginning as the one they edited a couple podcasts back. Only improved, of course. However, no where in the story do characters named Kris or Stacey or Lair appear. It seems to me that Brandon took the ideas that were good in the original version, and improved upon them greatly to create an entirely new story. I quite enjoyed the latest version; it’s definitely not Brandon’s best work, but it was entertaining and well written.

    Great podcast, guys! It’s really insightful to be able to see (or hear, I guess) changes being made, instead of just talking about how to make them.

  18. I’ve looked through the old podcasts, and I’ve not found much about agents. I’m an aspiring writer, and people who’ve read my stories are interested in seeing them published. I’ve heard tips about picking agents (such as, ignore any who demand money before looking at a manuscript), but never much about how to find one. Any suggestions?

  19. When I write children’s books I have a kid read it out loud to, that helps me know which sentences might be difficult, or when the dialogue sounds wrong.

  20. @Mike Barker. Hi; thanks for taking the time to do the transcripts, they are helpful. ;)

  21. @Brenna — thanks! I was wondering recently whether anyone was reading them. Appreciate that.

  22. I loved this show, it was entertaining this time around with lots of playing back and forth with the dialogue. I also got a kick out of Brandon talking about his younger self as if he was in the room and what he would have told him.

    I only have a minor, minor nitpick. I doubt anyone cares, but I thought I would point it out anyhow.

    Brandon said that his characters were off to study a primitive culture? This is probably a slip up and/or he just doesn’t know it’s antiquated?

    Just to let you know, but in around the 1980’s or so, and definitely over about 100 years of field work in anthropology, anthropologists threw out that word as a valid way of talking about culture.

    One can have less developed technology, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that one culture is “more evolved” than another, which is what the word “primitive” has come to mean over time. This is because culture is a result of mainly homo sapiens sapiens, and being that we are all the same species, it’s hard to say that one is more superior to another. But if the characters thought the culture was “primitive” and got their butts handed to them, that’s a different story (though the linguist of the group, should have known better).

    Just thought I’d point that out. I’d be happy to furnish that with examples.

  23. Interesting evidence of the advance of political correctness. “Primitive” means “first or earliest of its kind”, which is entirely accurate. I would argue that to avoid using the word is an example of patronising, “noble savage” type thinking.

  24. @Ed — since I first ran into this concept in about 1970 in anthropology, I’m pretty sure it isn’t an outcome of the relatively recent trends often attacked under the rubric “political correctness.” Far simpler — anthropologists noticed that Mayan society (for example) was quite complex and rich. The term primitive often made it more difficult to put aside their own social blinders and really observe the society they were studying. I believe the kernel of their argument might be that we have yet to find a true “primitive” society to study — they have all evolved quite a bit.

  25. Yes, I noted the date. I think a hunter-gatherer society qualifies as primitive, since it hasn’t developed beyond how primates (see what I did there?) live. Certainly calling a society that has built cities “primitive” seems foolish.

  26. You guys are all awesome. This is the first writing podcast I’ve heard, and I really appreciated the tone and banter. It was professional,but casual enough to be entertaining and informative.

    I love that you promote audio books, which I find to be quite enjoyable myself. I feel I must shamelessly plug the Graphic Audio rendition of Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris. The full dramatized voice acting, original music and sound effects coupled with the original narration make for an amazing experience. Think of it as a radio drama with all the narration of a book,e xcept dialog tags and things that could be accomplished with sound effects (such as someone being stabbed in the chest.
    The URL to the site is http://www.graphicaudio.net/c-107-brandon-sanderson.aspx
    I highly recommend you all at least give the free sample a listen.

    I also have to say that all of you commenters are great. I’m probably hanging around the wrong sites, but I’m impressed with the tone of the comments. I loved Brenna’s “1994 Brandon Sanderson dialog.

    I found this podcast quite helpful, but if it’s alright, I have one suggestion. I wonder if putting the material we’re going to be going over in the description of the podcast might be helpful for people? The way you’re doing it is great, but I find I need to rewind sometimes to hear the original sentense. I saw you had a transcript of the entire podcast in the comments section (which must have taken ages to right by the way) but perhaps linking to the material or putting it in the description might work too?
    Anyway, sorry for that.
    I do have to shamelessly pl

  27. So, I’m wondering if there’s really this much time that goes into drafting a story for you guys. Do you look at these things in this much detail when you’re going through your current manuscripts? I can just see a single draft pass-through taking eons if you focus so much upon individual word choice. While I agree that this individual word choice is important, do you actually deliberate so much?

  28. I would listen to a whole season of you (and Mary) doing this. These are increadibly helpful. Maybe a special content CD for sale.

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