Archive for the ‘Writing Prompts’ Category

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How to build a character profile using Tarot – The Court Cards

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New article on my sister blog all about how to build a character profile for your short story or novel.

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Writing Conversation and Speech in Novels

This is another one of the ‘lessons’ I prepared for my Writers’ Group. One of our members was struggling to write natural, flowing conversation in her novel, so was doing the unwise thing, and avoiding it altogether. Ooops.

Conversation is important in any novel or short story, because in real life we speak; but in a story we have to write speech as if spoken naturally. That is the craft of novel writing, the illusion of reality.

He said she said

When we hold a normal conversation with our friends and family we say whatever we like, we interrupt, and generally talk a load of old rubbish. Sometimes we have important things to communicate to friends and family, but unless we have some kind of crisis that’s probably as rare as hen’s teeth. “I’ll be there in five minutes.” “What time shall we meet?” “Is supper ready?”

When we speak to people we’re purchasing something from we ask questions. With people we’re in contention with we tend to repeat our point of argument over and over again. With other people we pass the day and recount stories of this and that, how good the supper was last night and what a fab film we saw.

Yes, this is conversation. Yawn.

When writing fiction the conversation has to be part of the story, its job is to move the story forwards and direct the reader to the next scene or point of interest. Speech in writing offers information. That is it’s only purpose.

When writing a story we don’t care that the film was fab unless the film is part of the storyline. We have to cut our conversations to the bone, but also make our characters speak naturally and clearly.

Conversations in your story also help portray what the character is like.

How do they speak? “I say, lovely day.” “Hello mate, bit of a roaster today.” Both of these characters are saying exactly the same thing, but in a different way. The key to good character portrayal is to find each character’s unique voice, without going down the line of, “Eeez very varm today.”

Alongside what your characters say is the actions we describe around their speech.

“I say, lovely day,” said Fred, waving.

“Hello mate, bit of a roaster today,” said Jim, climbing into the cab of Bert’s lorry.

We can, of course, add adverbs to flesh out emphasis of how the sentence is being spoken, but nine times of out ten we don’t need these, and they should be used sparingly. Do these adverbs add anything?

“I say, lovely day,” said Fred jovially, waving.

“Hello mate, bit of a roaster today,” said Jim wearily, climbing into the cab of Bert’s lorry.

We don’t need the jovially for Fred, because his sentence is pretty upbeat and he’s waving, however, with Jim we discover that he’s weary, and this, as it’s part of the plot line, should add additional information to the reader. Hey ho, Jim’s tired, what was he up to last night?

There are, of course, many other words that can replace said. Some I personally loath, while others can be of use. Anyone who’s interested can pop along and read a list of 218 alternatives here. http://www.spwickstrom.com/said/

The main points to remember is that dialogue must share information, move the story forwards and make something happen.


Below are some two line conversations that I offered to my writers’ group as prompts. Have a go yourself. Simply fill in the ‘he said, ‘she said,’ part of the story and see what a difference how you describe the way they said it makes each sentence sound.


“What are you doing here?”


“I don’t think that goes there.”

“Yes it does.”


“I really can’t take much more of this.”

“I know.”


“Isn’t it gorgeous.”

“That’s not how I’d describe it.”


“Well, I told you it would end up like this.”



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Two great writing exercises from my writers’ group.

Writing Prompt3

We had another great meeting at my writers’ group this week. One of our newer members Steve led the ‘lesson’ and I was curious to see what he would bring as it was the first time he’d been invited to create material for us to work with. Well, he certainly didn’t let us down. In fact he had so many ideas that he brought two themes to the table and let us choose which we would like to spend our 15 minutes writing about.

Just to let you know a bit more about how we work, we always generate hand-outs so that we have written material to work from and don’t have to listen intently to the session leader’s instructions and scribble it all down at the same time. This means that we can pay full attention and ask questions to clarify what we’re supposed to be trying to achieve, and also gives us reference material to take home and continue working from.

Steve’s hand-out was nice and simple. The first option was Plot Generation with a choice of character, setting and situation. We were supposed to select the same number in each section, but hey, we’re creative individuals and some of us mixed and matched.

Character :

1.Cab Driver

2. Actress

3. Homeless Person


1. Restaurant

2. In a telephone box

3. Railway Arches


1. Terminal Illness

2. Fired from her role

3. 1965

Short story of max 250 words in which a plot is developed encompassing the above themes.

You’ll note that Steve gave us a word count of 250 words because the ‘lesson’ is only part of our weekly meeting as we also make time for free reading and to hear people’s ‘homework’ which is work they’ve generated from a previous week’s ‘lesson.’ He was very wise choosing a low word count because some people panic and think they have to write a complete, polished piece of writing in 15 minutes. Believe me, some group members write amazing pieces in such a short time, but others require more thinking time and only scribble down a few notes. This is why we finish our pieces as ‘homework’ and get priority in reading them to the group for critique during the following weeks. It’s a system that works very well and out of these writing prompts several of our members have created short stories that have gone on to win major competitions.

It was interesting that two people chose to write about the Cab Drive, Restaurant, Terminal Illness theme. They were such different stories. In one the Cab Driver was the person with the illness and after a day of highly entertaining passengers he stopped off at a café to read his important letter and then didn’t know how he was going to tell his wife the bad news. A good construction of happy day turns sour. The other was the Cab Driver taking someone to see a particular restaurant they used to dine in and the Cabbie wondering why he wanted to go to such a scruffy eating place when he could obviously afford much better. Here we had the concept of ‘the last supper.’

You can see from these two examples how precisely the same writing prompt generated two unique ideas.

The second option Steve offered was to:

Invent a character through thinking about their possessions: 10 objects

  1. Battered leather briefcase
  2. Large blue silk handkerchief
  3. Bottle of prescription painkillers
  4. Apple iPhone
  5. Grecian 2000 black hair dye
  6. Business card
  7. Divers watch
  8. Sepia photograph of great grandparents
  9. Withered poinsettia
  10. Pencil sharpener

The first thing that happened when we all read through the list and discussed it was a hilarious five minutes of banter with everyone describing the type of person who wears a diving watch! One bright spark suggested that anyone who wears an expensive diving watch either can’t afford the sports car, and has to make do with the watch as an expression of wealth; or has a paunch and doesn’t really dive. Two men in the group proudly drew back their sleeves and displayed their diving watches! One said he used to dive and the other said, “When I told my son that this watch will still work at a depth of 300 metres he said, ‘yes Dad, the watch will, but you won’t!’”

Stories generated from the prompt, once we had stopped laughing, included two murder scenes, in which the police were putting together a character profile of the deceased; and one argument in which the wife was yelling at the husband to buy a new briefcase. All three writers had the start of something intriguing and are intending to flesh out their ideas and bring finished pieces in over the next few weeks. One person had their corpse decayed and rotting, the clue to the time of death being the withered poinsettia as they’re always around during Christmas…a clever inclusion of an obscure item.

For my own part I decided upon the Cab Driver, the telephone box and 1965, and this is what I wrote. Remember, this is written in under 15 minutes during our meeting and transcribed direct from my notebook, with no alterations.


“The pips are going, phone me back…What! Alright, alright…”

Reluctantly I pressed more pennies into the slot. You didn’t mess with these boys, not for the price of a few coppers.

“Lenny? Lenny? You still there?” His voice rasped down the line.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“You got that then? Corner of West Street, tomorrow night, 10:30 sharp. Ronnie’ll hail down your cab and you pick him up, just like any other fare.”

“Where do I drop him?”

“Don’t get funny with me, Lenny. He’ll tell you once you pick him up. Least you know the better.”

“That’s a long sweep to go right up and round again…one way traffic and all that. So you make sure he’s there on time, on my side of the road.”

“He will be.” He paused and I heard him suck in a long breath. “Don’t let us down, you understand?”

“I’ll be there.”

I held the receiver listening to the purr as he hung up. Slowly I clicked it back into the cradle and leant heavily on the side of the phone box. It stank in here, the rain pummelling against the glass, steaming the booth up, but never washing it clean. Bit like me really…yep, just like me.


The beauty of these short exercises is that they force you to jump straight into the action. There’s no time for preamble and elaborate descriptive passages. We have to get in there and get the nuts and bolts of the story down, to captivate our audience, even if the piece isn’t complete and the action left hanging. When other people in the group say, ‘Wow, what happens next?’ you know that you’re onto something good.

If any aspiring writers would like to have a go at either of these prompts then I’d be pleased to see their work and include it on my blog to show others what can be achieved from a few simple ideas.

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