In last week’s blog post I talked about creating character depth, and the week before that about dialogue attributions. This week’s post combines a bit of both, developing dialogue further and at the same time bringing some subtle character depth. How do we do this? By having your characters active during dialogue, or in other words, have them multi-task.

“I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe that people are their talk.” Roddy Doyle

Life Vs Fiction


In life, things rarely happen one thing at a time; you read the news on your phone while stirring your coffee whilst your stomach grumbles for your lunch. You doodle on a pad while talking on the phone. The contrivance of fiction is to actually tell things one at a time, word by word and sentence by sentence and for good reason. Imagine transcribing onto the page the full sensory experience of a single moment. How would you get across all the thoughts you have in a split second, what you’re hearing, seeing, smelling and touching? As a human you can experience all these things at once, but to accurately convey everything together in a sentence all at once? In the words of Macauley Culkin, ‘I don’t think so.’. 

Using action in dialogue

One way of imitating life and making your dialogue more three dimensional is to use action. Let’s look at an example. First, with no action – just flat dialogue with a bit of scene setting beforehand .

Dialogue, without action

Leah shuffled down onto the floor, took off her hair band and handed it to me. I stretched my hand through it so it ringed my wrist like a bracelet. I gathered up her hair in three bunches.

‘God it’s not fair, why isn’t my hair as nice as this. We use the same conditioner.’

‘Yours is longer,’ Leah said.

‘Maybe I should cut mine too.’

‘Please don’t. Can you imagine it at school, “Ooh look here comes the twins!” Urgh.’

‘Yeah.’ I said. 

‘What do you think about Jamie?”

‘Think about him? I don’t think anything about him.’

‘Well, he’s your friend. Don’t you think he’s handsome, come on you must have noticed?’

‘All done here.’

Dialogue with action.

Now let’s check it out with some action and internal thought, same intro. 

Leah shuffled down onto the floor, took off her hair band and handed it to me. I stretched my hand through it so it ringed my wrist like a bracelet. I gathered up her hair in three bunches.

‘God it’s not fair, why isn’t my hair as nice as this. We use the same conditioner.’ I ran my hands through it, letting her hair fall between my fingers, as light as sifting flour.

‘Yours is longer,’ Leah said, turning the page of a magazine in her lap.

‘Maybe I should cut mine too.’

Leah closed the magazine shut like a book. ‘Please don’t. Can you imagine it at school, “Ooh look here comes the twins!” Urgh.’

‘Yeah.’ I said and weaved her hair neatly through into another plait.

‘What do you think about Jamie?”

It came out of nowhere and for a second i just stopped what I was doing. ”Think about him? I don’t think anything about him.’ 

‘Well, he’s your friend. Don’t you think he’s handsome, come on you must have noticed?’

I gave her hair a tug, slightly too rough and wrapped the hair band around the bottom of the plait. ‘All done here.’

White ringed my wrist where the hairband had been to too tight. 


Notice the difference? We learn more about the characters, their personalities through some subtle, and maybe sometimes not so subtle action and internal thought. If we think back to dialogue attributions in writing hack #2, we can also just use action instead of an attribution. For example.

‘Now let me see,’ Danny scratched the back of his head with the blunt end of the pencil, ‘about two-hundred, maybe two fifty quid.’

Also, it’s important not to take one technique – like using action to animate dialogue – and apply it 100% of the time. Imagine reading a book where every conversation was animated with loads of action, it would feel a little laborious I think.  Interesting writing has a variety of techniques in it throughout. It’s the job and skill of the author to choose which technique and when to apply it. Using action in dialogue is just one weapon to have in your armoury.

Further reading: the wonderful science-fiction writer Nancy Kress has three books on writing and written fluently about this topic in particular. Check em out!

That’s us. Until next time.


Think of your favourite ever novel or TV series. Now think about one or two of the main characters. They’re interesting right? They’re complex, like a real person? If you took that character out of the novel or off the screen and placed them in a setting of your choosing I bet you could predict exactly how they’d behave or react to certain events. That sort of character is called lots of things; a three-dimensional character, a character with depth, well-fleshed out, rounded, complex and so on.

But how do you make an idea in your head become this brilliant character? Of course there are many techniques but today let’s look at one writing hack that for me, makes the biggest difference most quickly.

Three contrasting character traits

Got a character in mind? In your head they are probably already complex. Don’t have a character? Well you can even start with the traits and a character may emerge around them. Let’s pick three contrasting traits and see where it takes us. Let’s say someone is;

affection beautiful blur couple

  • Submissive
  • Jealous
  • Hysterically witty

Now i’m imagining a girl with an older sibling who’s better looking, successful but is actually not as clever. Or a guy with an idiot boss whose job he is desperate for but isn’t quite bold enough to get. You’ll now start to see why there is often a debate about whether you can separate out plot and characters as separate concepts. They are intrinsically entangled. To a large extent, character is plot.

Using these three contrasting character traits as an authorial technique, the character has an instant level of complexity borne out of their competing emotions and desires. The key is to have contrasting emotions, one negative and two positive or vice versa. You have three positive or three negative key traits and you get a one dimensional character who’s just good or just bad – BORING.


Breaking Bad as an example

Let’s take another example, but now someone from recent pop culture, like Walter White from the series Breaking Bad. For those who don’t know the premise, here it is really quickly: Walter is a nice as pie high school chemistry teacher with cancer, a pregnant wife and a disabled son and in some financial difficulty. Worried how they’ll survive after he’s gone, he uses his expertise as a chemist to manufacture crystal meth and enters the murky world of drug dealing to secure his family’s financial future.

Traits change as a character develops but at the start of the series before Walter truly breaks bad, what three key traits does Walter have? For me, he’s a…

  • Family man: Walter loves his family and feels a massive responsibility to safeguard their well being. He would do anything for them, in fact it’s that very thing that gets him into trouble.
  • Downtrodden genius: Walter is an under appreciated genius – his job well beneath his intellect. He also founded a startup that went into the financial stratosphere just after he left. He’s justifiably bitter about it, and to cap it all, he has to work at the car wash to supplement his income and even wash the cars of some of his rich students.
  • Liar: Walter is a pathological liar.

So someone who is a family man is also a liar. From just those two traits you can start to develop plot. He lies to his family. Why? To protect them. Thus we get conflict, intrigue. The third trait adds more depth; not just that Walter has a skill, but also that he’s been overlooked and under-estimated his whole life. Here’s his chance to prove people wrong.

Let’s recap

  • Picking three key contrasting character traits will add depth and complexity to your character.
  • Try to think of two positive and one negative, or two negative and one positive to create friction, conflict and intrigue.
  • Be specific with the traits. Being simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ won’t help you. Think about what defines your character traits and ask yourself, why are they like this? In that, there is plot.

Got your three character traits? In next week’s post i’ll talk about how to best reveal  how your character has these traits; with direct action of course.

If you want to support me then grab a copy of my People’s Book Prize shortlisted spy thriller Orca Rising and review it on Amazon by writing something nice and colouring in all the stars 🙂 If you’d like some assistance with your writing why not check out my critique service.

Until then. Adios.


butlerAttributions should be like butlers, they’re there if you need them, but the best ones go unnoticed.

Here’s the thing. At school you may have been told to avoid repetition, and to use synonyms. While that is sound advice when trying to build a vocabulary, you can ruin good dialogue by following that rule. Let’s take a closer look.


Attributions are where you want to ‘attribute’ a line of speech to a particular character. Like: 

‘Let’s go and see that movie,’ said Bill.

‘So you can just sit there and stare at pretty actresses all night? I don’t think so,’ said Carol.

When writing a novel, dialogue aerates the prose so you will end up writing a lot of it. The temptation to jazz it up comes to us all. Can I really just say he said, she said all the time? If you don’t, you might end up writing lines like this.

‘What!’ spat Bill.

‘You heard me and you needn’t look so bloody angry. I’ve seen you looking, don’t think i haven’t,’ Carol retorted. 

What’s happening now is, the argument is hotting up, it’s getting interesting, but i’m drawing a little attention away from it with a technical detail. I’m distracting you with flowery attributions. The interesting thing is the argument, its content and development and NOT the synonyms for ‘said’.

In a simple two way conversation like this between Bill and Carol, it’s actually better to not attribute at all once you’ve established the rhythm of who’s talking. If a new character enters, or there are more than two, you’ll find you need to use attributions more often.

‘When have I been looking? At who?’

‘When we’re watching the telly. When we’re out. All the bloody time. You’re staring at the pretty newscasters. You’re staring at the waitress at Orsini’s. At that trussed up–’

‘Guys?’ Samantha was at the door, holding her headphones, ‘I heard raised voices, is everything all right?’

‘Fine.’ Bill said. ‘Your mother and I were just arguing about what film to watch. Come on now Carol, grab your coat or we’ll miss the trailers.’

 Now you’re more focussed on the dialogue, rather than the attributions. And that’s how it should be. I’ll talk more about dialogue in other posts, like using action sometimes instead of attributions, but for now let’s do a quick re-cap;

  • Keep attributions simple and unobtrusive. He said/she said is fine, and a few variations (she replied/he yelled/she whispered etc. where appropriate.) Remember, attributions are like a butler – the best ones go unnoticed!
  • If you know intuitively who is saying the line of dialogue, either through their speech style or verbal tells, or simply because it’s their turn to speak, then you don’t need an attribution. It’s cleaner without.
  • The job of attributions is to make clear who is saying the line of speech. The reader shouldn’t need to work to figure out who’s talking.  The more people present in a scene, the more attributions you are likely to need. 


You’d be surprised what some hungry writers would stoop to, when faced with a rumbling tummy, no bread and half a pack of bacon in the fridge…

My advice? Go ahead and eat it, but LEAVE your computer and do it over a sink. Trust me, you do NOT want to have greasy keys. You’ll wind up cleaning the keyboard and you might accidentally hit the keys and accidentally write something good – and we cannot let that happen.

In three blog posts, CSJ Hannon blogs about how he got an offer from an agent, deciding to sign & what has happened since.

Post one: Attracting a literary agentIanDodds_Final_Perry_Web_Cover

Once I had a finished draft of my first novel Perry Scrimshaw’s Rite of Passage, I knew the time had come to research agents, send off proposals and query letters…except I didn’t do this at all. When trying to distil my novel down to a one-sentence hook and trying to write a compelling synopsis, I realised that the book just wasn’t good enough to be a commercial success. For years I’d written this thing and only now do I realise that it’s not a compelling proposition? Hard though this was to choke down, I didn’t waste time, energy or effort trying to find a publisher or agent for it. I self-published it so at least i could show family and friends what i’d been up to over the last five years of ‘writing’. I then used all I’d learned through the experience to write another. Within two months, I’d finished Orca Rising – the first novel in a potential trilogy about a clever British teen who gets seduced into the world of international assassinhood.

I felt differently about this one, it had pace, flow and was funny in places and I decided that yes, this one was worth pursuing. I got a list of all the Young Adult (YA) agencies, ignored their pleas to be approached one at a time and not carpet bombed – as far as I was concerned I wanted to give my book the best chance and send it to as many agencies as possible, to multiply my options. I would recommend doing this but in a staggered way: send to five agencies, wait six weeks, another five and so on – write something else in the meantime. Reason being, if one agency says no but gives you some helpful feedback (e.g. the start is too slow) you get the chance to change it and amend your proposal to the next set of agencies. It’s a slower process but the waiting can actually help in other ways: you lose your attachment to that one book and get some creative distance; your cover letters will get better; you get to write something new and fresh. If you send it all of in one go then you forfeit the chance to do that.

I think I wrote twenty different cover letters until I felt I had it right, I rewrote my synopsis three times. I tweaked the first three chapter samples too, hoping there was some magic combination that would work. Writers often complain about the dreaded query letter and synopsis. Yes, it is a different style of writing but getting it right bodes well for your versatility and professionalism as a writer. Below I have included one incarnation of my query letter, I did tend to tailor it each time to the recipient. By no means am I saying this is a paradigm of a good letter, but in the interest of encouraging and helping other writers who are looking for an agent, the example might be helpful.

Dear xxxxx,

I understand you are accepting submissions for representation consideration and I prefer the idea of an agency that specialises in YA. I’m pleased to introduce my new novel Orca Rising, the first in a planned trilogy. Ocean Daley is a 16-year old British teenager who gets seduced into the dark world of international assassinhood and when faced with the reality of taking life, has to choose between his own morality and loyalty to his family ties.

Orca Rising is a teen-crossover, running to 48,000 words and I think it would appeal to fans of  Robert Muchamore’s Cherub series. In a lot of YA fiction I read, the protagonist rarely joins the dark side, and when they do they don’t stay there for long and only do so for some perceived greater good (e.g Scorpia Rising, Divergent). I feel that’s what inspired me to write Orca Rising and what makes it distinctive; it doesn’t pull its punches, letting the protagonist go through with the heinous act of taking life and allowing the redemption and moral maturation to occur over a series of three books. Clearly this type of character development has worked well in new-style TV series formats and I think there would be an appetite for it in the YA market.

I’m 32, have been writing for eight years and ran a creative writing group in Brighton for the last five years. I gained a Masters degree in Creative Writing in 2013 and independently published my first novel (a historical YA/crossover book) Perry Scrimshaw’s Rite of Passage in September 2015. I have had a number of short stories published on the Ether Books mobile platform.

Best Regards

CSJ Hannon

Then what happened? Well, I had about eight rejections before anything of interest came in. It was an email from the director of an agency. A long email in fact, the crux of which was: you’re a great writer but your book’s too dark for YA gatekeepers, I’ll pass but send me anything you do in the future.

This was the moment that I kicked myself for sending out so many queries out at once. There were things I could have changed… was it too late? I decided that if she were keen enough she would have still taken me on and helped me to iron out those kinks. It was disappointing, but I think it was the first time I truly thought I might have something. I had honestly expected (but not hoped for!) 100% blank rejections even though I believed in my work. Then, a week later, a couple more rejections came in and then a one liner from another agent: ‘Really like it so far. Send me the rest. Are any other agents interested?’

I sent him the rest, told him about the nibble from the other agent but that I hadn’t had any firm offers. A week later I got a full response. It was a yes, the word ‘terrific’ appeared and then there were bullets of feedback; make it more high-tech, change it from assassins to spies, it’s too dark – make the protagonist more likable.

This was golden advice; two different agents had effectively told me the same thing, but one wanted to take it on (implicitly on the condition that the amends would be made). I wouldn’t ignore the advice. But I didn’t sign with him right then, and I didn’t crack out the champers.

Check out next week’s post for why.