Wednesday, November 17

How Dialog Can Help Re-Structure a "Needs Some Work" Draft

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Yesterday Nancy Holzner talked about writing dialog for her scenes first as a scene starter, then filling in the rest after. As someone who tends to write dialog-heavy first drafts and flesh out layer by layer as well, I could really relate to her process. But dialog can help with revisions the same as it can help with a first draft. I'm using it now in the revisions of Shifter 3.

One of the more daunting revision tasks is probably facing a finished novel that needs work, needs one or two subplots either cut or heavily reworked, but has a core story that is mostly okay. Large chunks are going to go, but you're not totally sure which ones. Scenes are going to be moved around and tweaked to work in different areas, but you're not sure how. You stare at it, and it feels like you're going to need to rewrite the whole dang thing, yet you know that most of it is actually workable.

Knowing where to start can be hard. I know, because I'm right there, right now.

I had a really good week last week and came up with a fabulous new outline for Shifter 3. I found the key piece I needed to focus Nya's goals into a strong plot-driving force. I came up with (thanks to questions from a recent school visit) a wonderful new aspect of the magic system and a cool detail to add to the war.

But I stare at the manuscript, the outlines, the notes. It's been chopped up a lot by now (getting rid of old stuff and scenes moved around), but there's still a lot that I'm not sure what to do with. Parts of those scenes are right, but how do I fit them into the new plot?How do I know what to keep and what to cut?

I look at the dialog.

In most cases, what's going on in the scene (action) isn't as important to the story as what's being said.  Because the dialog (inner or outer) is often where the story lies, and the action is where the plot lies. The action will change based on what I need my characters to do. But what they say is the same no matter where they are. Thematically, the choice the make doesn't change because that's the choice they need to make for the story to work.

Your dialog can show you the essence of what that scene is about and why it's important to your story on a macro level. How that piece fits into the larger whole. A conversation that shows the protag's fear over a recent choice should clearly go after a scene in which they made a choice. A planning session for a daring task can be adapted to fit any daring task in the book. An emotional turning point needs to go after something that triggers that turning point.

For example, Shifter 3 currently opens with Danello trying to cajole Nya out of a locked room to cheer her up and get her back into the world. This is important, because it gets her outside so she can encounter something critical to the plot. I like the way the two characters banter, as it shows their growing relationship, and gives you a good sense of who these two are. Nya's internalization even mentions her best friend, Aylin, so you get all three main characters right off the bat. After the revision, the details in that conversation will change. The situation around that conversation will change, as circumstances have changed as to why Nya is in that room. But the conversation will stay pretty much the same. Because that conversation is important to the story.

What I need to do to revise that scene, is find a situation that requires Danello to cajole Nya out of the room for a reason that fits the new plot event I planned for the opening. Something that will also put Nya on the path to encounter that other plot element I need to end my chapter on.

So instead of having to think up an entirely new scene, I just have to think about ways in which the conversation I like can take place to achieve the result that I need.The editing will come in the details and the character reactions to things. Maybe some internalization as well, as Nya's mental state has changed.

This isn't the only conversation that's like this. All through the book, characters are talking about things that are critical to the story. Those conversations are like little road maps. They show where the story is advancing by showing what choices the characters are making. In most cases, Nya isn't making the big plot-turning decisions on her own. She's discussing them with her friends. She's stating her motives. Examining the stakes.

Internalization is another area when story-advancing decisions can happen. Conversations with yourself works the same way as conversations with others. Working something out usually implies a choice has to be made, or a choice is being questioned. That shows where something critical probably happened in your story.

How much you need to revise will vary depending on how much you change, but in that big daunting rewrite, it's a lot easier to tweak details than come up with a whole new scene. It can also save you time, because you don't have to rewrite the book. Just the plot parts that aren't serving your story.

Find the essence of what those conversations mean, and you can pinpoint what choices your plot -- no matter what it turns into -- hinges on. Stories are about what someone wants and what they're willing to do to get it. Goals and motivations. For readers to understand those goals and motivations, characters need to talk about them in some way.

And that can help you find your way in revising your story.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Very cool, Janice! Good observations.

  2. This is great, Janice. (I've been looking forward to reading this post since you mentioned it in the comments yesterday.)

    I love this: "In most cases, what's going on in the scene (action) isn't as important to the story as what's being said. Because the dialog (inner or outer) is often where the story lies, and the action is where the plot lies." So true. Your words give me insight into why I do like to start a new scene by sketching out its dialogue. In the first draft, I'm discovering the story. As you say here, the plot/action can be adjusted to suit the needs of the story, but to do that you've got to know what the story is and how it unfolds.

    Thanks so much for this post! It's going to be super-helpful when I'm revising my current manuscript.

  3. I'm going to keep that in mind. It's funny, because I've noticed that the scenes with more dialogue write faster. Dialogue is a major part of interaction, and interaction is what makes me interested. It's where characters shine the most.

  4. Great post. I love your ideas on how to keep the plot focused.

  5. Juliette: It was one of those things I realized I was doing as I tried to organize my scenes for revision. It actually works well with something I know you'll be talking about here next week :)

    Nancy: My first drafts read a lot like your sample in the guest post, but I either skip the qqq or toss in something bad, like an adverb description or a general "he smiled" "he frowned" type placeholder. Then I do a pass just to flesh out the stage direction and tags in my dialog. Actually, that might not be a bad post on its own. I've talked about individual placeholder words before, but a general post on the different kinds of things we do might be helpful.

    Jaleh: That's one reason I love conversations. It's probably my favorite part of the story. It's also the part folks don't typically skim, since that's where things are happening :)

    Natalie: Thanks! I was a lot freer with the subplots on Shifter 3 (I let the imagination run and planned to trim after I saw where it went), so there's more shuffling than normal this time. But it does provide good material for the blog, so I can;t complain, lol.

  6. Thank you! I am smack dab in the middle of a rewrite and having the same troubles. Great post and advice!

  7. Another one for the bookmark folder. Seriously, this is the exact issue I'm having with SPITFIRE--overall, things are totally workable, but yep--one or two things I've got to seriously restructure/flesh out.

    I've never thought of these kinds of revisions as hinging on dialogue, but now, thanks to you, I've got a whole new plan of attack.

  8. Michele: Glad I could help. That's one good thing about writing the blog as I write my novels. I know if I'm ever stuck for a topic I just need to look at what I'm doing and there's almost always something I can share about my process.

    Shayda: That can be such a pain, can't it? For me, these types of revisions take more work than a total rewrite. I really have to look at every line and nudge it into shape.

    The dialog thing has certainly made it easier for me, so I hope it works for you!