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.