Friday, July 07, 2017

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

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I’m guest posting over at Writers in the Storm today, chatting about a fun plotting and story developing technique I’m trying with my new novel. Come on over and ask, “What Do You Want Your Readers to Wonder About?” with me.

One of the many daunting revision tasks is facing a finished novel that needs work, but the core story is mostly okay. You know one or two of the subplots will need to go, but you're not totally sure which ones. Certain scenes absolutely need to be moved to different parts of the book, but you're not sure how they’ll fit in. 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 fixing the issues can be hard, but I’ve discovered a little trick:

Look at the dialogue first.

A story’s dialogue often shows the essence of what that scene is about and why it's important to the story on a macro level—how that piece fits into the larger whole. A conversation that shows the protagonist'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. Details might change, but the core of the dialogue will very likely stay the same.

The dialogue (internal and external) is often where the story lies, while the action is where the plot lies.

For example, my fantasy novel Darkfall opens with the love interest, Danello, trying to cajole the protagonist, Nya, out of a locked room to cheer her up and get her back into the world. This is an important moment because it gets Nya outside so she can encounter something critical to the plot. It also has the two characters banter, which shows their growing relationship and gives readers a good sense of who these two are. Nya's internalization even mentions her best friend, Aylin, so readers get introductions to all three main characters right off the bat. A solid opening scene, even if it wasn’t quite right by the end of the first draft.

When I started revising, I knew I wanted them to banter, that Nya would choose to go with him, and that she’d be in the right place for the next plot event to happen. I just wasn’t sure exactly how I would do that and transition into the other changes I’d made for the opening chapter.

The situation around that conversation changed as circumstances changed as to why Nya was hiding in her room, but the conversation stayed pretty much the same, as did her final choice to leave and go with Danello. The conversation and the choice made at the end of that conversation was what was important to the story.

As I revised this scene, I brainstormed different situations that required Danello to cajole Nya out of the room for a reason that fit the new plot event I’d planned for the opening. Something that also put Nya on the path to encounter that other plot element I needed to end my chapter on.

It would have been easy for me to scrap the entire scene and write something new—and that probably would have been a bad idea, as the new scene would not have laid the right groundwork for the rest of the already-written book (changing the foundation of the opening scene changed too much down the road). The scene was also thematically important to show Nya choosing to go out into the world, which had echoes all throughout the novel. Her choosing to be part of the greater community.

But I knew the dialogue told the real story in that scene, so I trusted the dialogue to guide me.

This wasn't the only conversation that held greater importance in the novel. Characters frequently talked about things that were critical to the story. Those conversations were like little road maps showing where the story was advancing and what choices the characters were making. In most cases, Nya wasn't making the big plot-turning decisions on her own, she was discussing them with her friends. She was stating her motives, exploring her options, examining her stakes, and showing me exactly what mattered in the book, even if I chose to rewrite the action surrounding those motives.

How You Can Use Dialogue to Guide Your Revision

If you find yourself stuck on a scene, yet your instincts say you need to keep it, try copying it to a new file and cutting everything but the dialogue and internal thought. See what the characters are saying and thinking without the distractions of what they’re doing. Odds are you’ll find the essence of what the scene is about, and that should allow you to know where in the novel it needs to go and what needs to happen while that conversation takes place. Maybe you’ll add it to another scene, or maybe you’ll use it as a bridge between two other turning points.

You might even realize the conversation isn’t what matters and it’s the action that does. When you cut the action, the dialogue just lies there. That lets you know the problem lies with what they’re saying, not with what they’re doing.

For a particularly troublesome draft, you might even write a scene-by-scene summary of what the characters talk about. If you find an abundance of conversations that lecture more than plan, that’s a red flag that there’s not a lot of decision making going on, and thus not a strong plot driving the story.

Find the essence of what those conversations mean and you can pinpoint what choices your plot hinges on. Stories are about what someone wants and what they're willing to do to get it—the 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 while revising your novel.

Have you ever rewritten a scene but kept the dialogue the same? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  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!