Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Three Great Tips From An Old Crime Writer

By John Yeoman

JH: Join me in welcoming Dr. John Yeoman back to the blog to chat with us about tricks to keep our readers enthralled with our characters.

Dr. John Yeoman has 42 years experience as a commercial author, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight books of humor, some of them intended to be humorous.

Take it away John...

It’s amazing what you can learn from old crime writers, even when they’re poor authors.

I have just been reading Malcolm Sage, Detective (1921) by Herbert George Jenkins. He wrote around the time of Edgar Wallace but he lacked Wallace’s manic ingenuity. Jenkins, in a word, is stagy.

In his tales, the butler really does do it, the reader is presented with just two possible suspects of which one is blatantly a decoy, and the villain is called - nudge, nudge - ‘Sir Jasper’. That said, Jenkins knew his stage business. He could keep the reader enthralled, even when his plots were as clunky as the Woodman in the Wizard of Oz. How did he do it?

He used ‘choric orchestration’. That is, his characters add a revealing subtext, unspoken, to almost their every word by their involuntary body language.

As soon as Lady Glanedale ‘elevates her eyebrows’ at the master detective Sage, without deigning to reply to him, we know she’s a wrong ‘un. Whenever Sage ‘mechanically’ fingers his fountain pen, or a paperweight, or the pages of a book, the reader can deduce that he has stumbled upon a Clue.

While he listens to witnesses, with no obvious interest, he compulsively doodles. ‘He drew a cottage upon his thumbnail.’ With each doodle, the reader expects him to sketch the face of the true culprit. Maddeningly, he never does.

The behavioral tics of Sage and his characters dance around the stories like a demented chorus, singing: ‘Pay attention! This bit is important.’ Remarkably, it works.

How can we adapt choric orchestration in our own stories, to keep our readers enthralled, even throughout long passages of dialogue or exposition?

Jenkins employs three tricks: characterizing descriptions of speech actions, sub-textual clues to each character’s private thoughts, and stage business that adds a revealing context to prosaic exchanges of dialogue.

Here are some tips for using his techniques. (The examples given are my own.)

1. Characterizing descriptions of speech actions

These have the added merit of helping us to avoid tedious repetitions like ‘she said’/’he replied’ that make a story read like a ping pong match. They also eliminate the need for adverbs, the sign of an amateur.

‘She whispered softly’ becomes ‘I strained to hear her’. Likewise, ‘He said, gruffly’ might be ‘His words sounded like gravel in a cement mixer.’ ‘She lisped, delightfully’: ‘I heard the wings of an angel, flying low.’ ‘He replied, angrily’: ‘His voice was broken glass.’ ‘She said, in a beautiful voice’: ‘Her voice reminded me of summer nights in old Castilia.’

2. Clues to character’s private thoughts

Body language can let the reader into our characters’ minds without the clumsiness of a direct statement eg: ‘I could see the man was lying’.

‘She wept’: ‘Her body shook with silent sobs.’ ‘I said, thoughtfully’: ‘I pulled meditatively upon my right ear lobe.’ ‘She snorted, derisively’: ‘She elevated one elegant eyebrow.’ ‘He gasped’: ‘He twirled his fingers with bewildering rapidity.’ ‘He asked, bemused’: ‘He tugged the end of his beard as if he could tease from it some answer.’

3. Stage business that adds context to an exchange of dialogue

This tactic is very useful. It lets you unfold a little story--ominous, amusing, or whatever you wish--behind the surface narrative, to add nuances to the main event. The elisions [...] indicate passages of intervening dialogue.

‘He counted upon his fingers’ ... ‘He ran out of fingers and flapped his hands’ ... ‘He closed his fist abruptly’

‘She toyed with a paper clip’ ... ‘She bent the paper clip into a little man’ ... ‘Her paper clip had now acquired two devilish horns’

‘I traced the outline of a hand upon a sheet of paper with a charcoal stick’ ... ‘I showed him the outline of my hand’ ... ‘I smudged the charcoal outline’ ... ‘“The picture is not the event,” I explained. “By itself, it tells us nothing.”’

It can be great fun to collect alternative ways of saying ‘He said’/‘she riposted’, etc. Some folk have even compiled databases of inventive figures of speech, filed under key words. Need a colorful way to write: ‘he growled’? Enquire within.

But it can be a dangerous sport.

It tempts one all too readily into the tutti frutti style of aureate discourse, where every rift is loaded with superfluous lore. Stage business should be dropped into a story very judiciously, like a bouquet garni in a casserole, lest our readers-- their eyes as cold as a taxman’s smile-- cry ‘Curse you, sweet poet!’ And our tale goes to pot.

As you see, it did. Now, uh, what was I saying?

A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part course.


  1. One of those articles I kept scrolling up to look at the photo of its contributor. Who is this startling genius? Stuff you can plug in instantly. Thank you, sir.

  2. To sum up: thank you, sir!

  3. This is perfect-- this blog is a refuge I visit every day for inspiration, encouragement, and motivation. Thank you, thank you!

  4. Thanks for another great post, John Yeoman. I always learn something to take away when reading your advice. In fact, right now I have to get to my work in process...there's something I need to fix....

  5. Tim, the genius in question - I assume you mean Herbert George Jenkins - can be found at Gutenberg. Malcolm Sage, Detective is at:

    The book is still very readable, as are many of his others.

  6. Thank you, Sir for this writing blog. I've learned so much about writing since I've started receiving it in my email.

  7. Terrific post. Thanks for the fresh ideas.

  8. Thank you very much for this information, Dr. Yeoman. I am a new writer about 8 years old and have been trying to work on syntactical registrations for my characters to distinguish between them. I will play around with this choric orchestration from now on to master it. In addition, do you have any information on how i can characterize someone without saying, "He is eight years old. or In all her sixteen years of age." How can the reader pick up by my using this choric orchestration that the girl is sixteen or the boy is eight?

  9. TamBrann, that's a tricky one! One way to differentiate characters by age is to imagine how that person might respond at different ages to the same event. Suppose mum throws a tantrum. The 8 year old boy goes 'Ho, hum' and draws a circle in his bowl of cereal. The 16 year old girl cries 'Oh, get a life!', throws a spoon at the wall and storms out of the room.

    Just think of the body language that might be apt to those respective ages.

  10. Dr Yeoman, all I can say is wow! This is an eye-opener. Coming from the Raymond Carver school of 'said, said, and said,' I can only say wow again.

    I was researching a post about how to expand the three O's (Objective, Obstacle, Outcome) and I kept thinking what about Orchestration? Quite fortuitously I ended up here and now I'm wondering if I really have anything worthwhile to say on the subject.

    Thank you so much for this awesome post.

  11. I love this post! In my creative writing courses in college, we were told that adverbs were the devil! Ha! My professors really tried to verbally beat it into our heads that adverbs were for the weak writers with nothing better to say!

    I started a Writer Talk group on Facebook and gave them the prompt of writing a whole scene of dialogue WITHOUT using 'he said/she said.' It's a lot harder to people who have never really thought about doing anything else!

    Great post!