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The Wicked Writing Blog

Welcome to the home of writing award ideas and practical advice for story contest success. Fun and sheer tomfoolery are never far away. Feel free to add your comments. (To comment on a post, or see the comments there, simply click on its title.)


Seven Sneaky Ways To Bring Your Dialogue Alive

June 19, 2015

When was the last time you were inspired to write a story - or create a character - from a snatch of dialogue you overheard? Or you discovered some useful writing device by listening to what people in real life truly say or do?

If you're a writer, I'll wager it was yesterday. Wasn't it? It wasn't? Get out your notebook!

Here are seven sneaky- and enjoyable - ways to do it. And (let it be whispered) you might even be able to set your next lunch expenses against tax....

I sit in a pub. Mine is a modern atrocity of wide-screen televisions and screaming ululations, aka music. But its patio is civilized. It overlooks a wondrous lake where carp the size of plesiosaurs lurk and occasionally eat children.

Hidden within the patio shadows, I often overhear stories that cry out to be written, with writing devices thrown in gratis.

Here’s a typical harvest. It’s replete with clever tips to make your dialogue glow. (I apologize to US readers for my British idioms. My pub lives - shamelessly - in central England.)

Device #1. The Choral Sub-Plot.

Is your dialogue turning into a monologue? Is one character going on too long? Break it up! A little sub-plot that unfolds in the background can add variety, animation and even an ironic chorus. It’s the bricolage technique. Here’s what I overheard at the patio:
“When’s your divorce coming through?”
“It isn’t. The bastard’s giving me a lot of grief. - Look at the pretty ducks, Trish. - He can’t get his fancy woman to move in with him so he’s keeping me on a string. - No, Trish, ducks don’t like peanuts. - The fool thinks I’ll come back to him - Yeah, thanks, I could do with a rum and coke. And hell will freeze over. - Don’t go near the water, Trish. - What you drinking, lover? - Trish, you hear me?- Doesn’t listen to a word I say. It’s all her father’s fault. Spoiled her rotten. - Watch out for the carp, Trish. - So the lawyers are twiddling their thumbs, ain’t they? Ruddy sharks, lawyers. - Oooh, Trish, I told you to watch out for the carp!” Bursts into tears. “This ain’t my day.”
Well, maybe I made the last bit up but the rest is verbatim, exactly as I heard it.

Simenon used a similar device in The Friend Of Madame Maigret. An entire chapter consists of just one character speaking but his monologue is so imaginatively broken up - as above - that we think we ‘hear’ a roomful of conversation. And we ‘see’ the room too.

Device #2: The Helpful Bit-Player.

With this tactic, some minor character - bartender, child, pet or any entity whatsoever - persists in interrupting the speakers. The episode plays no part in the plot but the way the characters respond to the interruption can - obliquely - deepen their characterization. In this true example from my pub, a business conversation was side-tracked by a waitress:
Guest #1: “I ordered squid.”
Confusion. “You say squid. I bring you calamari. Enjoy!”
“Is calamari squid?”
Bemusement. “It comes with garlic butter. Enjoy!”
“I don’t like garlic.”
Roll of shoulder. “You want I bring you barbecue sauce? Enjoy!” Exit waitress, in a huff.
“Oh,” he toyed miserably with his squid “I hate people who say ‘Enjoy’. I hate Americanisms. I hate foreigners coming over here, stealing our jobs. What do you think?”
Guest #2: “Have a nice day.”
If that was a fictional story, we wouldn’t meet the waitress again but she’d have done her job. We’d have learned a lot, in passing, about the droll personalities of the guests.

Device #3: The Significant Incident.

Imagine that people are engaged in conversation and a minor incident distracts them. The incident - inconsequential in itself - can help us slip information into our dialogue casually, without the clumsiness of an ‘information dump’. My pub yielded this true example:
Waiter: “Are you the owner of a blue Nissan Micra, Joe, what is in the car park?”
Consternation. “Yes, what of it?”
“I thought you should know that someone appears to have smashed your windscreen.”
Exit Joe, in panic, in the direction of the car park.
Waiter, truculent, to the company: “We’re not liable for damage to people’s cars. It says so on the noticeboard.”
Another drinker: “Does it happen often?”
Waiter: “Never before, sir, and I’ve lived here thirty years. We have the lowest crime rate in the county.”
Enter Joe, much annoyed. “The windscreen wasn’t broken, you idiot. A pigeon had just crapped on it. My next drink’s on the house, don’t you think?”
Waiter, lugubrious: “I’ll take it up with the management.”
What’s the point of this silly incident? Well, we’ve met a colourful waiter who could be a valuable source of local knowledge later in the story. We’ve also learned that the area has ‘the lowest crime rate in the county’. When a murder occurs there, it will be doubly horrific. And perplexing.

Device #4. The ‘Impossible’ Dialogue.

Sometimes what we overhear in dialogue cannot be replicated in our stories. Our readers would not believe us, even though it’s true. Here’s what I heard - truly - at an olde world pub, not my own, just a few months ago. The local hunt was meeting and the ‘county set’ was in full cry.
“I say, Charles, I’m your whipper in today.”
“What! Jolly good show, old man. And your good wife?”
“Lady Gladys is bringing up the hounds.”
“Top hole! That calls for a bumper, don’t you say?”
If you met those characters in a story you’d cry “These people are straight out of P.G. Wodehouse. You’re writing farce!” Yet a few fossils like that still do exist in middle England - wearing tweeds, monocles and jodhpurs - as if in a time warp.

When you present characters who are too absurd to be true, though they’re true, have another character within your story assume the role of the reader - and challenge them.
“Are these people real?” Jane rolled her eyes at me.
“They believe they are. And has it ever occurred to you, they might think we’re odd?”
“Weird,” she murmured, and pressed my hand. “Am I odd, Bill?”
Now the ‘odd’ characters have been rendered plausible, by being questioned within the story.

Device #5: The Catalytic Character.

In chemistry, a catalyst is an agent that effects or facilitates a change, without being changed itself. Or so I’m told. You can do the same thing in dialogue with a ‘catalytic character’. They play no role in the story itself but they move the story on. I’m in my pub again…
“May I have your signature on this petition?”
“What petition?”
“It’s to oppose the building of a crematorium beside the lake.”
“A crematorium? Are they mad? This is an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I’m the secretary of the Mead Bird Watching Club. How dare they?”
He pushed across the petition, and a pen. “May I look forward to your support at the council meeting this Friday?”
“I’ll bring my pitchfork!”
If this was fiction, we might hear no more about the petitioner - a catalytic character - but we’d know that a crematorium will loom large in the story, and our blimpish bird watcher will soon be foaming at the ramparts. With a pitchfork.

Device #6: The Mime Show.

Have you ever ‘overheard’ a conversation in which nothing much is said but a lot seems to be happening? I’m not sure I heard this but I didn’t need to. The characters’ language with fingernails, glasses and olives was eloquent enough.
“Well?” She fingered her glass.
He inspected his fingernails. “I’m not saying it’s impossible…”
“You mean, I’m being foolish.” She chewed an olive.
“But, you know...” He flapped his fingers.
An indrawn breath. “Your wife?” He averted his face. She spat the olive pit into her palm. “Oh, why does she always, always come into our conversation?”
“Darling, I didn’t mean…”
She wiped her mouth. “Please take me home.”
Body language is more than a device to break up dialogue. Sometimes, it can be dialogue itself.

Device #7: The quirky conversation.

Just across from my pub is a tiny general store, so quaint and murky that Dickens might have used it as a model for the Old Curiosity Shop. Its proprietor is equally ancient. One day I went in, wearing a polite smile.
“Don’t be grumpy,” he said.
“But I’m not grumpy.”
“Please don’t be grumpy.”
“I’m NOT grumpy!” I shouted.
“Now you’re grumpy. What can I serve you?”
As they say, you couldn’t make it up. Every snippet of quirky dialogue like that is fodder for a story. Even a catchphrase can add personality to a minor character. Every time I leave the shop he says, grumpily, “Happy Christmas”, regardless of the season. Yes, he’s a character. And one day, he’ll appear in one of my stories…

In summary, spend a lot of time in your local pub. Not only will you pick up priceless snippets - and writing devices - but you can also set everything you spend there, past and future, against tax. They’re legitimate research expenses.

Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?

Have you ever been inspired to write a story - or create a character - from a snatch of dialogue you’ve overheard? Or discovered some useful writing device by listening to what people in real life actually say or do? Share your experiences in a comment below. Every comment gets a fast, thoughtful reply.

This is the usual place where the author drops in an awesome biog, picture and Call To Action. Why should I be different? (BTW: my name is John Yeoman, top-rated Amazon author, writing coach extraordinaire, and
a man legendary for his modesty...)

Discover more about characterization now, and every other magic technique that will help your story glow, at Story PenPal. It's virtually free! Go to:

Deep Travel: How To Write From The Heart And Win Readers

June 12, 2015

A good story is often inspired by a powerful experience, one that changed the author’s mind, their very way of looking at the world. A
great story may change the reader’s life as well.

Author PJ Reece tells us how he stumbled on the technique of Deep Travel by living through a pungent, true event. It showed him how to write compelling fiction, from the heart. Could we not do the same?

From Africa I flew to India. 

I would return home through Asia, circumnavigate the globe, prove the w...

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Five Great 'Characterization' Tips - Use Them At Your Own Risk!

June 5, 2015

What do your reading habits say about you? What’s on your book shelf or Kindle? And what’s on your characters’ shelves? I ask because The Times (22nd May 2015) has just uncovered the private reading habits of the world’s most terrible dictators.

And its revelations are alarming.

It seems that Osama bin Laden cherished The Grappler’s Guide To Sports Nutrition. Hitler collected a complete set of novels by Karl May, a German writer of cowboys-and-indians stories. Muammar Gadd...

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How To Write Like A Pro: Four Seasoned Authors Reveal Their Tips

May 29, 2015

So, you've started writing your new story. You want to come up with a bestseller people will love. To do that, you have to overcome two problems: to craft an interesting story and to promote it in a way so that people will want to buy and read it.

Or so Lesley Vos reminds us. In this guest post, she reveals the writing secrets of four seasoned writers What tricks do they use to deal with the pitfalls even experienced authors face from time to time?

Anita Cox

International best-selling aut...

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How I Got My Books Top-Rated At Amazon - And You Can Too

May 22, 2015

Congratulations! A Great Truth has dawned upon you.

You’ve decided that to become an A-list author by the agency/publisher route is as likely today as striking oil in your window box. You’re tired of laminating your 1000+ rejection slips to sell on EBay as collectible bookmarks, the moment you become famous.

You’ve resolved to self-publish your book.

Perhaps you’ve already put it up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords or the like. Or you’ve produced a paperback via CreateSpac...

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How To Fall In Love Again

May 1, 2015

Have you heard of the Slow Book movement? I hope not, because I just invented it. What is it? Oh, it would take too long to explain - say, 1000 words where a modern author might use ten. Suffice to say that it’s a long overdue call for peace and sanity in a world of frenetic fiction.

The Slow Book movement is a disgrace.

It sacralizes long obscure words (like sacralize), extended metaphors and shameless digressions. Let me digress and I’ll tell you what I mean. In 1000 words.


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3 clever ways to research your novel for free

April 22, 2015

Must you make
every little detail in your novel or story seem authentic? Every location, real event or technical fact? Of course you must, allowing for creative licence. Otherwise, your reader will cry "Baloney!" Your story just won't be plausible, unless you're writing fantasy (and even then).

But how do you find the answers to even the whackiest or most obscure questions - quickly and without charge? Expert researcher Joanna Jast shows us three clever ways.

Have you ever regretted giving...

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John Yeoman

Dr John Yeoman, MA Oxon, MPhil, PhD Creative Writing, FSRS*  is a UK university tutor in the short story. He has 42 years experience as a successful commercial writer, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy.

He has published innumerable works of humour, some intended to be humorous.

* Founder, the Society for the Rehabilitation of the Semi-colon