Plotting with dialogue

The closest I usually get to plotting is a few scribbled notes on odd bits of paper. And usually this starts when the book is half done.

The closest I usually get to plotting is a few scribbled notes on odd bits of paper. And usually this starts when the book is half done.

Whenever a few writers get together, at some point the age old question is going to come up…. Are you a plotter or a pantser?

This of course refers to our way of working. Do you plot the novel in detail in advance or do you just sit down and fly by the seat of your pants. I tend towards the latter, but in either case, the hope is that the result will be a novel. A good one with realistic characters and a gripping plot.

Last week I was confronted by a sort of third option – plotting with a few lines of dialogue. This a really intriguing idea came from Sophie Weston, who has sold about 12 million books world-wide. That’s a very nice number. Lots of zeros involved. She was speaking at a workshop in London. This is what I took home from that workshop.

Let’s start with the traditional idea of plotting. This involves mapping out the action of the story. I know people who do it on a spreadsheet. Others do it in a document. Post it notes all over a door is another popular method, or a roll of wallpaper and a handful of coloured pens.

In this way, events are mapped out, scenes are described, characters actions and of course the all-important conflicts and resolutions. All good stuff.

At that point, if it were me, I would stop. If I know all that, there’s no reason to write the book. For me the joy of writing is the exploration: the unexpected idea that seems to just flow out of my fingertips without me really thinking about it; the way the characters slowly reveal themselves to me as I write and the times when even I start to wonder if this conflict will ever be resolved. I could never be a plotter.

But Sophie Weston suggested another idea. Dialogue. Not too much of it. Just a few lines where the characters reveal something of themselves, or react to an event. These are the key turning points of the story defined – without the detail.

Think about this moment in Star Wars….

Darth Vader holds a hand out to Luke Skywalker and says.. I am your Father.

Darth Vader holds a hand out to Luke Skywalker and says.. I am your Father.

What a moment. It’s a turning point for the film. It changes everything for Luke. And for Vader. It adds new levels to both characters and to their conflict.  Four words. That’s all it took.

In Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise says to Rene Zellweger – ‘You complete me.’ It’s the moment when he admits he loves her. When planning the story, you could write …. he goes to her house where she is with a group of female friends and then he tells her he loves her. Or, in the outline you could just write three words and let the rest flow naturally as you write.

‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat. ’ In Jaws, this is the sign of worse trouble ahead. You don’t have to decide in advance when and where and to whom that is said. It’s just a line that tells us here is a place where the stakes must be raised.

‘I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.’ In On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando gives us his whole character in just two lines of dialogue.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy.

And let’s not forget Casablanca – with Bogie and Bergman. ‘All the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.’ I don’t have to write a backstory.  That line gives me all the backstory I need to know when I start writing. I can discover the details as I write.

All my books start with the opening scene in my head, and the closing scene. My job is to get my characters from scene one to the last page in a believable and interesting and moving way. I’m going to have a go at writing a key line of two of dialogue before I really get into writing the book. I need lines that say a lot about my story and characters. If I can come up with a great line, I can build the story to that point, without having to map it out scene by scene. I will know where I am  going without writing so much detail that the story looses its freshness and spark.

It’s plotting, without plotting. And without giving away too much of the story to myself.

Thinking about the work in progress, I can see and hear my central character saying ‘I need your help.’ I know who she is saying it to, and just how hard it is for her to say it. That’s already telling me things about her back story and her character. I’m off now to write the next chapter.

Thank you Sophie Weston for the idea. I’ll let you know how I go.


What’s in a book cover?

How important is your book cover? Well, crucial enough that publishers will change their entire design if a chain store buyer doesn’t find a jacket visually appealing. And yes, even as a tiny rectangle on an Amazon page, it has to stand out, conveying the tone and genre to attract the right readers. Now that’s a big ask!

Of course publishers have teams of experts leading the design process. Great if you love the result. Not so good as a writer if you’re unhappy with the way your book is presented, whereas indie authors have the sometimes daunting pleasure of total control. Obviously the first step is to hire a professional designer but it’s still you, the writer, assuming final responsibility.

Ellie Campbell has gone through both experiences, traditional and indie, and we’re still learning. So just for fun we thought we’d show you some of our book covers, old and new.


Left is the original Arrow cover. Originally we liked it. Later we decided it seemed too juvenile and we really hated that it was so easy to miss in a WH Smith promotional stand of Summer Reads – even with two of us desperately searching.

By the time we commissioned the second version (right) we’d already decided to continue some elements of Looking For La La, our first indie book cover. Hence the photo cover with the bride looking over the fence. We feel she’s possibly a bit too angry – a real bridezilla – but again it gets across the humour aspect.

The next cover is the Arrow one for When Good Friends Go Bad. I don’t think Arrow knew what to do with us at this stage but they were trying for a more grown up look. A few years on we reverted the rights and our designer came up with the one on the right, again following the theme we started with Looking For La La (cover shown below). Comments, anyone?


Above, we have the three covers for our ‘Crouch End Confidential’ mystery series, Looking For La La, To Catch A Creeper and Meddling With Murder. Looking For La La was the first ever cover we commissioned and we were thrilled with the response. I honestly think we wouldn’t have got nearly as many blog posts or reviews without it. We had no idea the novel would inspire sequels but then, of course, we had to come up with follow-up designs using the same or similar girl. We particularly like Meddling With Murder, so colourful and cute!


The next pair are interesting because we recently decided we didn’t care for the old cover of Million Dollar Question and just commissioned a new one. Although the paparazzi do feature in the story, we felt the guy in black gave the wrong impression – he looks too sinister for what’s quite a funny romantic book. Or maybe as if he’s about to deliver a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray. We like the new cover much better.

And then we have the cover for our just released box set of what is now the Crouch End Confidential series. We wanted it to have a ‘box’ look but also show the three spines. We came up with the idea of a file folder with polaroids pinned on it and the big red “confidential” stamp. Although in translation, the designer changed the file folder to an envelope, still we think we get the point across.

Anyway, as always, we’re curious to find out others’ experiences. What do you feel makes a book stand out? Ever have a cover you particularly hated or that you felt actually hurt sales? Or one that you loved above all others? And how do you feel about photo covers versus graphic?

Sue Moorcroft’s ideas factory

One of the most common questions I’m asked at events or on social media is where my ideas come from. I don’t have an Ideas Shop just down the road from where I live – but I do have an Ideas Factory. It’s this:

I listen to people talking and I think about what they say.

You might be disappointed by my ‘revelation’ but here’s how it works. If a person finds a situation remarkable enough to tell me about, then that’s an indication that there’s something worth exploring. ‘Remarkable’ is good.

Sometimes it can be a central idea. Over dinner, a friend told me about her holiday from hell. I laughed until I cried as she made it sound very funny but in amongst the extraordinary happenings was a story of a family in crisis, a woman who was acting bizarrely because she’d fallen violently in love with a younger man. She’d kept another big secret, too, and the truth came out during the holiday.


(Cover under construction)

It’s no coincidence that my next release is called Just for the Holidays because I asked my friend if I could use some of the basic facts of her holiday from hell. I haven’t used all of them but what I have used is what I thought about: the confusion and fear of the woman with the secrets, the impossible situation she got herself into and the incredible fallout in her family. In fact, it’s her sister who’s the heroine of my novel, because she’d chosen to be single but ended up in France looking after her niece, nephew and brother-in-law. This irony underpins the story.


This technique has worked for me with novels, short stories and serials. If someone tells me an anecdote about a little girl who wouldn’t come home from the park or a lady who went to the funeral of Eric Brown and realised when Eric Brown tapped her on the shoulder that she was actually at the funeral of Eric Green, I begin thinking about the emotions involved. Why did X do this? How did Y react? And, what message or messages would I like to put across?

To show you how important I believe a message to be to my writing, here’s an example of someone giving me something to think about and my taking a message from it. It’s not a happy story but I hope you forgive me that.

file-08-02-2017-08-28-53A girl of six was at school. Sitting next to a boy she didn’t like at lunchtime she deliberately spilt his orange juice over him. Almost immediately, she was called to the headteacher’s office and was walked along the school corridors in silence, heart pounding because she thought her moment of meanness had been observed and now she was in big trouble. In the headteacher’s office, she found that her daddy was waiting for her. He’d come to tell her that her mummy and her baby brother had been killed that morning in a car crash. The little girl’s first thought was ‘At least I’m not in trouble for the orange juice.’

What I took from this sad story is: our first reaction to something is not the most important or most far-reaching. It has set off a whole chain of thoughts about bizarre reactions in crisis and what the consequences of them could be. My story will not be about orange juice or bereavement. It will be about first reactions.

Next time you’re short of ideas listen to the stories of others and just think about them. You don’t have to lift entire stories but just use one aspect as a starting point. What if …? Why …? 

Sharing some exciting news

A book very close to my heart.

A book very close to my heart.

I can finally let you all in on a secret I have been keeping for a little while now….

The Romantic Novelists Association has announced the shortlists for the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards – and my book, Little Girl Lost, is there. And yes – I did cry when I first heard the news.

Little Girl Lost is shortlisted for the Epic Romantic Novel of the Year –that’s for a book which has a strong romance at its core, but also deals with wider issues beyond the romance.

I have been fortunate enough to be shortlisted, or won, other awards – but this one is particularly special to me.

First of all, the RNA is a wonderful organisation for which I have boundless respect and affection. I’ve been a member for many years and tried, where I can, to do my bit to help the organisation that helped me so much when I was first starting out as a writer of fiction.

I am also sharing the shortlists with writers whom I admire and, in some cases, have the honour of calling my friends. There have been some pretty wonderful books and authors on these shortlists over the years – including our own Sue Moorcroft.

Little Girl Lost holds a special place in my heart. Some of the issues it deals with have touched me personally. As I wrote it, I had my doubts about the book – but people I love and trust supported me and urged me on.

So – thank you to the RNA for this honour. The winners will be announced at a ceremony in London in March. You can read more about the awards and the shortlists on the RNA website.

With such great books on the shortlists – I am not at all expecting to win…. but I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed, just in case. Wish me luck.

I couldn’t put it down!

1024px-keyboard_and_penI’m going to start at THE END. It may seem an odd place to start, but I’ll explain.

A couple of weeks ago, I was able at last to write these words on my work in progress – I had, after almost a year, reached the conclusion of my novel. However, THE END only takes a writer straight back to the beginning, because with a first draft complete, the hard work of editing begins. Fellow blogger Janet Gover has talked before about the way she edits her manuscripts. It’s an essential part of the whole process and has many facets. I’d like to talk in particular about addressing the issue of pace.

Reading through my manuscript (the first time I’d seen all 110,000 words printed out), I could see all too clearly where the story moved forward at a cracking pace, where it slowed down, where I’d written too quickly in order to keep my imagination firing, and where I’d obviously become enamoured with my own rich descriptions and gone into too much detail.

Standing back from your own work isn’t always easy, but it has to be done. From the very first page, the characters and the situation should be interesting, perhaps intriguing. You might set up something horrifying (a kidnap, a murder, an act of mass terrorism), you might hint at some deep secret, or you might simply have an argument between two people, or your heroine arriving in a new city, not sure what she’s going to find there. Your heroine will face a challenge – saving the passengers on an aircraft, catching a killer, resolving a situation that has made her unhappy, realising that despite everything, she really does love the prickly man she met on page one. Not until she has saved the passengers, admitted she’s in love or whatever, can you offer a resolution to your story. (And once you do, the tension will be released as well!)

To ensure your readers want to keep reading, your characters must be believable and consistent, the set-up intriguing, the goal just out of reach until the end. But there are tricks of the trade you can employ to make sure your novel is a page-turner all the way through.

2%e8%89%b2%e8%9b%8d%e5%85%89%e3%83%98%e3%82%9a%e3%83%b3_6846770059In the last week I discovered that:

  1. I have been so keen, when writing, to move my story forward that I have skipped essential information that will explain why my character acted as she did
  2. I have moved the story forward in places by ‘telling’ my readers what happened rather than letting the actions of my characters ‘show’ them. It’s much simpler and quicker to say, for example, ‘they went together across town to choose a new puppy’ – but it’s dull, dull, dull! In my redraft, I have my heroine interacting with one of the puppies, falling in love with his antics and, hopefully, making the reader fall in love with the scallywag too – as well as ‘seeing’ why having a dog is good for her!
  3. I have skimmed over scenes without giving the right balance of narrative, dialogue and action. In general, dialogue speeds up pace, narrative slows it down. It shouldn’t all be dialogue, however – sometimes taking a breather is good! The reader needs space to reflect and understand, as well as to immerse themselves in setting and place.
  4. I had several chapters in the middle where I’d managed to get in a real muddle over the timeline. It’s important to explain things as they happen, not after they happen, or you will really reduce the tension. This has taken some disentangling, but I think I have achieved it at last.

1024px-highlighter_pen_-photocopied_text-9mar2009It is truly gratifying when a reader tells you, ‘I couldn’t put it down’. It means you’ve done something right! Here’s a brief checklist about what to look for when editing your own writing:

  1. Make us understand early on what your heroine wants. The story is over when she gets it!
  2. Make us see things as they happen – don’t explain them after they have happened.
  3. Thicken the plot, don’t thin it! Adding one or more subplots can enrich your tale, but make sure the subplots really add to the main story in a meaningful way.
  4. Show, don’t tell. Make us ‘see’ the scene, not just read about it.
  5. Use the active voice, not the passive. Root out passive verbs as much as possible – for example, not, ‘Peter felt appalled at her suggestion’, but ‘Peter’s mouth dropped open. “You can’t possibly want me to do that!” he whimpered.
  6. Ensure you have the right balance of narrative, dialogue and action.

It may take me another week or two to find myself back at THE END. Then I’ll print the whole thing out for a third time and read it all over again. At that stage, I might ask the views of a couple of beta readers. Getting an honest opinion from someone who has not read a word of your book can be really helpful (and sometimes salutary!).Only when I’m quite satisfied that I’ve done the very best I can will I send it away.

I really, really want my readers to tell me ‘I couldn’t put it down!’.