I’m a huge fan of dialog. As an entertainment fan, I’ve always been moved by incredible dialog. Some of my favorite storytellers are those that can make a story come alive through the words of their characters. One incredible modern example is the 2015 film Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin. While Sorkin’s patented rapid fire dialog isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I find it exhilarating and captivating. Never before was it better than in Steve Jobs, a movie made up of little else than people talking.
But sometimes with dialog, less is more. This was the case in one of the early chapters of Brother Dust: The Resurgence. Our title character isn’t exactly a social butterfly, leading a lonely life of war and rarely speaking to anyone. So when he starts meeting up with other characters in the book it was a bit of a struggle to figure out how developed he should be socially.
I want to highlight a seemingly simple change we made in edits that I think goes a long way towards improving the overall book. As you’ll see here, Brother Dust is meeting some new people for the first time. He rides down an elevator with a mysterious woman (whose name he’ll soon learn) and in this scene they’re just arriving at their destination. Here’s the rough draft version of the scene:
The doors slid open and they were met by a towering Solovot. Brother Dust had never seen anyone so large. He was a good two feet taller than the monk and his body was practically one big muscle. His head was shaved, something that was highly uncommon among the Solovot people. Despite his towering presence, Brother Dust sensed something soft in the man’s eyes.
“Welcome back, Anissa,” the man said, a wide smile spreading across his face.
She shot him an angry glare.
“What don’t you understand about lockdown mode?” she snapped. “No names, remember?”
He looked down at the ground.
Finally, Brother Dust had at least a scrap of information.
“Anissa,” he said.
She ignored him and stepped off the elevator. Brother Dust followed. The giant Solovot looked at him and smiled.
“I’m Arthur,” he said.
Anissa spun on her heel and pointed at him.
“Arthur, I swear to you, if you break one more lockdown protocol I’m going to have you fed to the puddlestuhrm!”
He again looked at the ground. Brother Dust couldn’t help but smile. He liked Arthur already. He slapped the large Solovot on the arm, then held out his hand.
“Nice to meet you Arthur, I’m Brother Dust.”
Going back over things, we wanted to make a conscious decision to dial back Dust’s dialog and social skills in these early chapters. He’s never had friends, and for many long years has known nothing but battle and death. But I really wanted to keep his sentiments about Arthur intact, as I felt like they make it a better story and give us an insight into who Brother Dust is. Here’s what we changed it to (only copying the relevant portion this time):
“Arthur, I swear to you, if you break one more lockdown protocol I’m going to have you fed to the puddlesturm!”
He again looked at the ground. Brother Dust couldn’t help but smile. He liked Arthur already. In just a few brief moments he’d revealed Anissa’s name and caused her to reveal information. Dust held out his hand.
“I’m Brother Dust.”
As you can see, the spirit of the original draft remains intact, but Dust’s somewhat reserved manner of interacting and speech is also protected. It’s no longer “Nice to meet you”, this time it’s just “I’m Brother Dust.” Informative, but not friendly. I love writing and storytelling because sometimes the most subtle things can have a major impact.
Really the only other major change is the arm slap. It was too enthusiastic, too friendly. Through more closely thinking about why Dust was happy with Arthur, we also gained a valuable insight into the situation that made the second version of this scene much better. Reading the first version, you could take away that Dust just really likes this big guy, that Brother Dust is just a friendly dude. In the second take, you get an insight into why Dust likes him. He only likes him because the guy is useful and has revealed information (Anissa’s name) that Dust was after. Even though Brother Dust still goes for a handshake here, it’s a much more reserved scene versus the enthusiastic arm slap/handshake combo in the rough draft.
Storytelling is enjoyable for a lot of reasons, but I think it’s the little things like this I enjoy the most. By internalizing some of Dust’s motivations and thoughts, we’re able to say a lot about the situation without forcing our reserved main character to say much of anything in actual dialog.
With test reading about to get underway and a massive edit waiting to follow that, I don’t know for certain if this section of the book will remain as it is or not. But regardless, I thought it made for a good illustration as to how small changes can have a big impact.