The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs

By Annette Lyon

Imagine that you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel. In the last chapter, Poirot calls the cops, tells them who committed the murder, and goes on his way, saying that of course everyone knows why Jeremy Jones is the one being carted off to jail.

TTOF - Breadcrumbs

After your confusion clears, you’d probably hurl the book against the wall in frustration. (Unless you were reading on a Kindle, in which case, you’d delete the dang thing with a strong click.)

Every story has mysteries and story questions. One of the biggest jobs a writer has is making sure that as the mysteries are revealed and the questions are answered, the reader isn’t confused to the point of book throwing. Continue reading

A Mini-Manifesto on Letter-Only Words

Back in the Late Cretaceous, when I was a kid, one of our neighbors had a couple of daughters named Danielle and Darcy. Both girls were several years older than me, and both were (from my perspective) kind of pretty. Danielle didn’t pay me a lot of attention, since she preferred boys her own age (or older … but that’s a different story). In contrast, Darcy liked to hang out with my younger sister and me. Since this was during that brief, idyllic sliver of time between dinosaurs and digital devices, the three of us would spend hours playing freeze tag, red light/green light, and swing the statues on Darcy’s front lawn.

Eventually I caught on to the fact that Darcy was different from the other girls her age. When I finally asked my mom about it, she told me that Darcy was “mentally retarded.”

I know, right? Call a kid that today and you’ll generate shock waves of angst and huffiness amongst the “walking woke.” But that was actually the prescribed term for a “special needs” kid back in the late 70s. “Mentally retarded” was just our Wonder Years way of saying Darcy was developmentally slower than other kids her age. Because “retarded” means “slow,” right? Plain old language. Gotta love it.

Knowing what the deal was with Darcy didn’t change anything, of course. My sister and I still played with her out on the lawn. The only difference was that I had a term I could use to describe how she and I were different.

Fast-forward to last year, when I posted something about a certain politician on social media. I’m not going to name names, but I’ll just say that the guy is a real idiot—a true moron. In my Facebook post, I suggested obliquely that he might possibly be “mentally retarded.” Almost immediately, my words were pounced upon by a much younger (and much “woker”) family member who informed me that:

  1. We’re not allowed to use the word “retarded” any more to refer to someone with an intellectual disability. (I was totes aware of this already, but I guess she felt I needed to hear it a few more times.)
  2. We’re also not allowed to call anything else “retarded.” Not animals. Not inanimate objects. Not even politicians. Not even jokingly.
  3. Also, but we’re no longer even allowed to say the word itself. Apparently, “retarded” is now “the R-word.”


I should point out that we’re not talking about the word “retard.” Like the other major letter-only word (spoiler: it begins with an N) “retard” has always been a pejorative. It’s hateful and mean, and I don’t use it. No—I’m talking about the word that, for decades, was the standard term of art for the intellectually disabled. This word was firmly enshrined in federal laws and regulations until 2010, when “Rosa’s Law” dictated that the federal government grep every instance of “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” and replace it with the more acceptable “intellectual disability” or “individual with an intellectual disability.”

SIDE NOTE: It’s worth pointing out that “idiot” and “moron” were also once perfectly acceptable terms of art for people with intellectual disabilities. I’m not making this up. But since they went out of vogue way before Team America Word Police was even born, we don’t refer to them as “the I-word” and “the M-word.”

Why do I even bring this up?

Because words are tools. As a writer, I refuse to give up any tool for the sake of political correctness. As a writer, I reserve the right to use the R-word. I also reserve the right to use the N-word, the F-word, the G-word, the Q-word, and every other tool at my disposal. In real life, people are hateful, mean, racist, stupid, behind the times, every possible kind of -phobic, and sometimes just thoughtless. They reveal their best and worst character in their speech, in their thoughts, and in their authentic voice.

While it’s probably virtuous to expunge the growing list of letter-only words from our personal speech (and Facebook posts), the minute we give up using these words in our writing is the minute we give up on writing about flawed, genuine people as they really are.

So, okay. It’s “the R-word.” I’ll try not to use the term any more—even in jest. But I’m putting the Word Police on notice that I’m gonna hang onto it for a while yet. Because not everyone has a self-righteous pedant in the family to point out the words they’re not allowed to use. Real people use the word in real speech—a lot. 



David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

Revealing Character Through Dialogue

Lately I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the dialogue in movies and TV shows, particularly ways that writers differentiate each character’s voice. One of my favorite moments is in The Avengers movie. (Joss Whedon is a genius at creating unique character voices.) There are lots of great moments in that movie, but this one really highlights how important a character’s background is in creating their dialogue.

When Nick Fury says he wants to know how Loki turned Hawkeye and Selvig into his flying monkeys,

Thor responds: “Monkeys? I do not understand.”

“I do!” Captain America says. “I understood that reference.”

This moment works so well because Fury references an iconic movie, one that most people are familiar with even if they haven’t seen it. Thor, though, isn’t from our world, he’s probably never heard of The Wizard of Oz (or the musical Wicked), and he has no basis for understanding Fury’s reference. (Just like Coulson has no reference for understanding when Thor compares himself to a bilge snipe.)

On the other hand, Captain America missed out on 70 years of mainstream culture, but The Wizard of Oz was released before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and before the Unites States entered WWII. So he actually got that reference, unlike so many other references in the movie.

This exchange provides some humor and lightness in the movie, yes, but more than that, it reminds the viewers of who the characters are and where they’ve been. Also, because each line of dialogue is so true to who the character is, it makes this movie with the flying ships and superpowers feel more grounded. It feels real because the dialogue is consistent with who the characters claim to be. If Thor caught pop culture references or compared himself to a hippo instead of a bilge snipe, it would make him less believable as a character.

Revealing Character Through Dialogue.png

Knowing your character’s background, knowing what references they will catch and what they’ll miss, is an important part of creating unique character dialogue.

So who is your character? What do they know? What don’t they know? Do they know what palimpsest is? Would they they understand the joke if they heard someone say: A scarab walked into a bar and asked, “Can I have this stool?” Or would they groan and roll their eyes if someone said: “Did you hear about the chemist that got stuck in England? London forces…”

Once you know who your character is and what their frame of reference is for the world, you can use that understanding to create dialogue that is unique to them.

What are some of your favorite techniques to help with dialogue? Do you have any recommendations for TV shows or movies that have excellent dialogue?


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Getting to Know Your Character Through Poetry

Last weekend I attended the Charlotte Huck Literary Festival in Redlands, California. It’s a book festival specifically for teachers, librarians, and writers, with a very strong focus on poetry.

One of the faculty members there was George Ella Lyon, author of the following poem:

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Isn’t that beautiful? The author talked to us about writing our own “Where I’m From” poems, an exercise she does with kids as young as 6. She told the following story to help us hone our lines.

One day she was working with a boy who wrote the first line of his poem as, “I’m from baseball.” After Ms. Lyon asked him a few questions he changed it to, “I am from the sweat behind the catcher’s mask.” His moment of realization for what she wanted him to do came when he said, “Oh! You want me to put you there!”

That is exactly what this poem does. It doesn’t just tell you that Lyon comes from a religious background, one with respect for elders, and a childhood spent outside. She puts you there and lets you taste, see, smell, hear the things she did.

As I was going through a workshop on writing my own “Where I’m From” poem, I thought, “This would be a great way to get to know my characters better.”

character poetry

Filling out a character questionnaire is one thing. It’s important to be able to list the special events and ideas that make up your characters backstory. But having to translate that into this kind of poem gives you a much better appreciation for what that backstory actually means and the tiny details you can write about to make them fully three dimensional.

This exercise for your characters can work two ways. Maybe you already know your character’s back story inside and out. Take those items on your list of traits and events and turn them into this poem.

For example, let’s use Katniss from Hunger Games, shall we?

I’m from the growl of empty bellies
And the black dust of coal
Dug from the belly of the earth.
I’m from forbidden mornings punctuated only by
The whisper of rabbits feet
And the whoosh of an arrow.
I’m from the snap of a bow
And the snap to attention
As a name is called
And a child is marched
To their final stand.

But maybe you are trying to develop a character more because you don’t know them well enough. In this case, you’re going to work backwards. Poetry is a wonderful twist on free-writing to get to know a character. As you write the poem, images may come to you, letting you in on flashes from your character’s past. You may have to piece together words of the poem to understand what your character is trying to tell you. You might be surprised what you learn.

I did this exercise for the mother in my MG novel. I already know that she’s an accomplished pianist and played recitals as a girl. She works in PR and married and had children when she was older. She’s responsible to a T, but a little stand-offish in her feelings sometimes. She’s insightful and compassionate, driven, and very overwhelmed with responsibilities. But I didn’t know much of her backstory until I wrote this poem, and now I can use it to develop her more.

I’m from the land of green stalks,
Brushing the sky for miles on end.
From practice makes perfect, curl your hands,
Don’t look at your fingers,
And scales every day.
From a row of A’s displayed on the refrigerator,
To a diploma hanging above my desk.
From that long stretch of highway leading me
Into the land where buildings
Brush the sky for miles on end.

I’m from the place where Rainy Days and Mondays
Always Get Me Down.
I’m from a phone call
From the sheriff. The one I know
On a first name basis.
A box of tissues used
On a single plane ride home.
I come from saying goodbye
Before I’m ready
When I can only say it
To a casket.

I come from the place where
“You can do anything if you work hard enough”
Meets, “family first”
And the terror that seizes me
Lying in bed
Feeling like both can’t be true all the time.
I’m from eyes caught on a subway,
A guitar pulled out at Central Park.
A promise for a smaller,
But richer life.
And another stretch of highway
Bringing us both
To each other.

Writing this poem made me nail down the love story between the mother and father, the secret heartache of the mother, her fears, her professional backstory, all of it. And for me, it was so much easier than a generic list of questions. I highly recommend it.

If you do this exercise, I’d love to see your poem in the comments!


Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Some Basics of Dialogue Mechanics

Dialogue mechanics tends to refer to all the other stuff surrounding dialogue that isn’t the actual words spoken by the characters. Today I want to talk a little about some of the basics of dialogue mechanics that have helped me improve my dialogues, both things to avoid, things to try, and why.

1. Dialogue tags

Dialogue tags are the speaker attributions in the text. All the “he said” and “she said” bits. And, yes, for the most part, you’ll want to use the simple word “said.”

I know, I know, my kids’ elementary teachers will disagree with me and insist that “said is dead” and we should use other words. Fancy words like cried and screamed and moaned and snarled and snorted and all of those kinds of words. The problem with these fancy dialogue tags is that they draw attention to themselves. Readers notice them and that draws their attention away from the words that were actually said in the dialogue. (Plus, you run the risk of making your novel sound like a melodramatic soap opera if too many people are panting and bellowing and hissing.)

While it seems like using “said” over and over would be boring, the truth of the matter is that readers don’t notice the word said. It’s basically invisible to them and they’ll focus instead on the actual dialogue instead.

2. Adverbs

Ah, adverbs. All those lovely –ly words. Writers will sometimes try to use them to make “said” more dramatic or interesting and as an alternative to those fancy dialogue tags. According to Browne and Renni in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, “Ly adverbs almost always catch the writer in the act of explaining dialogue—smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself.” Good dialogue should be able to stand on its own without explanations. And that’s all those –ly words are: explanation.

3. Explaining the dialogue

Adverbs are a quick way of trying to explain the dialogue. But sometimes authors go even further and actually spell out the dialogue. For example:

Connor ran his hand through Pippa’s hair.

Pippa twitched away from him. “Don’t touch me,” she said. Pippa hated it when people touched her hair. Especially after she’d spent an hour fixing it that morning, and especially by Connor, her ex-boyfriend. “I never want to see you again.”

This is just a quick (and not-so-great) example off the top of my head, but you can see how the long explanation in the middle about Pippa not liking her hair touched isn’t really necessary. Look at it again without the explanation of the dialogue:

Connor ran his hand through Pippa’s hair.

Pippa twitched away from him. “Don’t touch me,” she said. “I never want to see you again.”

It’s not amazing dialogue, by any means, but it has a lot more of an emotional impact when the distracting explanation is removed.

Another reason to be careful with explaining dialogue is that it often robs readers of the opportunity to pick up on subtext and try to figure out what’s going on beneath the words.

4. Action beats

Action beats can be a great alternative to dialogue tags, but writers should be careful using them. Every action beat is essentially a pause in the conversation. The longer the beat, the longer the break in the conversation. It’s important to be aware of how the beats function within the dialogue and use that to your advantage. So pay attention to how your favorite authors use action beats. Look at how they use those breaks to pause the conversation and how they avoid them when they want a scene to speed up.

In any case, Happy Independence Day and happy writing!

What advice do you have for me about dialogue? Have you learned anything that’s helped you improve your dialogue?


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Contemporary World Building

We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor, Amanda Hill!

World Building is a term most often associated with writing sci-fi and fantasy. But have you ever thought about the concept when it comes to writing a contemporary story?

People inhabit different cultural spheres within our world. Different communities. And each of these communities have different rules of engagement. Take for example a family.

Seems pretty simple. Everyone understands what a family is. But how different can each family be?
I think we all know the answer to that. Very. And not just because of how many people are in a family and what their ages or genders are or where they live. That’s not world building. But thinking about these questions is.

  • Who is in charge?
  • What are the rules?
  • Which traits are prized most?
  • Which weaknesses are most despised?
  • Is there a common goal? What is it?
  • Is there some kind of chain of authority or pecking order?
  • What are the consequences for “stepping out of line?”

The answers to these questions will change from family to family, and in order for your main character’s family to seem realistic, you need to know the answers to create a unique dynamic just for his/her family.

All these same questions need to be asked of other microcosms in your character’s life and each of those little “worlds” built from there. The communities that come to mind first are school/classes, extracurricular teams/groups, religious communities, jobs, a tight-knit group of friends, and a neighborhood/town.

Look at your own life and these different groups you have been a part of. Can you answer the questions posed earlier for each group? Can you answer them for the groups your MC is a part of?

The answers to these questions will make your character’s world far more relatable and layered.

But how does this world-building look in an actual story? I went to some of my favorite stories to answer that question!

Some of the best world-building within a school happens in the movie, Mean Girls.

Think of when Janis explains the cafeteria.

Where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial because you got everybody there. You got your Freshmen, ROTC Guys, Preps, JV Jocks, Asian Nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity Jocks, Unfriendly Black Hotties, Girls Who Eat Their Feelings, Girls Who Don’t Eat Anything, Desperate Wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks, The Greatest People You Will Ever Meet, and The Worst. Beware of The Plastics.” 

And then this about Regina George.

Regina George… How do I begin to explain Regina George?Emma Gerber: Regina George is flawless.Lea Edwards: She has two Fendi purses and a silver Lexus.Mathlete Tim Pak: I hear her hair’s insured for $10,000.Amber D’Alessio: I hear she does car commercials… In Japan.Kristen Hadley: Her favorite movie is Varsity Blues.Short Girl: One time she met John Stamos on a plane…Jessica Lopez: – And he told her she was pretty.Bethany Byrd: One time she punched me in the face… It was awesome.

This montage is great world building, because not only do we come out of it with a better sense of who the queen bee is, (Who is in charge?) but we can infer what is important in this school community based on what different people know and admire in Regina George.

Now how about a family dynamic. I went to Melanie Conklin’s Counting Thyme for a good example of this in the very opening paragraph.

When someone tells you your little brother might die, you’re quick to agree to anything. You give up after-school activities because no one can take you to practice. You start eating kale chips instead of regular sour cream ‘n’ onion because your mom says kale is rich in antioxidants, which means healthy. You even agree to move across the country, if that’s what it takes. 

That’s how I ended up in New York City. 

We came for my brother, Val, and the drug trial that might save his life. I didn’t know if the treatment would work or when we would go home again. All I knew was that Val needed to be in New York and we had to go with him. So I came.

Three paragraphs in and we already have a sense of who is in charge/most important. What the rules are. What the common goal of the family is, and what traits are most prized.

World-building in a religious community? Look no further than Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

“Well, Winn-Dixie saw that mouse, and he was up and after him. One minute, everything was quiet and serious and the preacher was going on and on and on; and the next minute, Winn-Dixie looked like a furry bullet, shooting across the building, chasing that mouse. He was barking and his feet were skidding all over the polished Pick-It-Quick floor, and people were clapping and hollering and pointing. They really went wild when Winn-Dixie actually caught the mouse. 

“I have never in my life seen a dog catch a mouse,” said Mr. Nordley. 

“He’s a special dog,” I told her. 

“I imagine so,” she said back. 

“I believe that mutt has got some retriever in him,” said somebody behind me. “That’s a hunting dog.” 

Winn-Dixie took the mouse over to the preacher and dropped it at his feet…The preacher looked down at the mouse. He looked at Winn-Dixie. He looked at me. He rubbed his nose. It got real quiet in the Pick-It-Quick. 

“Let use pray,” the preacher finally said, “for this mouse.” 

And everybody started laughing and clapping.

Don’t you get a real sense of this community? What do they value? How do they treat each other? Who is in charge?

I particularly enjoyed the world building within a small social group found in the first chapter of Brooks Benjamin’s My Seventh Grade Life in Tights. 

“All right, we’re rolling,” Austin said, then glanced at the lights flickering above us. “Hold on.”  

Carson let out a loud groan. “Perfect. Last practice before school starts and we’re going to look like we’re dancing in a lightning storm.” His entire body perked up. “Ooh, that might actually be cool. Let’s start before it turns normal again.” 

“Trust me, it looks terrible,” Austin said. “We need to invest in some lights. This place is a cave. And don’t get me started on the smell. It’s like someone farted in an old shoe.” 

“The lighting’s fine,” Kassie said. 

Austin poked his head out from behind his camera. “Oh, sorry. I thought I was the director.” Carson opened his mouth, but Austin cut him off before he could speak. “Come on, guys. I already feel stupid recording these. It’s not like y’all can’t just do it yourselves. Let me at least make it look good.”

Are you getting a feeling for the pecking order? For who’s in charge? Who’s low man on the totem pole? For the group’s common goal?

As you can see, there are several different ways to accomplish this sort of community world-building in a contemporary story. You can come right out and say it like in Mean Girls or Counting Thyme. You can show it in scene, like in Because of Winn-Dixie and My Seventh Grade Life in Tights. You can also show it through story (think of the story the teacher tells in A Snicker of Magic, even though that’s not contemporary. Same principle.)

Remember not to get bogged down in clichés. Not every band is going to be full of weird kids. The band I was in in high school was full of many high achieving, pretty popular kids. The class above me had all-state football players who were in every drama production and it wasn’t a big deal. Some religious communities are much more foot-loose and fancy free. They aren’t all full of gossipy church ladies. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your world building in your contemporary story!

Happy writing!

Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Three Dialogue Don’ts

Dialogue isn’t just the words your characters say to each other. Good dialogue works on a number of different levels and accomplishes so much. It can add to the reader’s knowledge of a situation, keep a scene moving forward, reveal something about a character (especially if you use subtext) and tell us about the relationships between characters. I love writing dialogue! But there are a few things dialogue should NOT be used for:

1-Dialogue isn’t good for describing people, places, or objects. 

“When you walked into the room, I couldn’t help but notice the shimmering beads on the neckline of your red gown. It really clashes with the highlights in your auburn pixie-cut hair.”


Instead, drop the description right into the narrative. Alternatively, use it to tell us more about your character, such as:

“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“It’s just that your dress is so…”
“What’s wrong with my dress?”
“I didn’t say anything was wrong with it. Just…never mind.”

2-Dialogue is not an important source of facts.

“If I don’t get to the Hartsfield International Airport in time, I’m going to miss the 9:30am flight to Phoenix. Your father is depending on me to be there for the gala in his honor tonight where everyone from the Dennis and Hart law firm will be attending.”

Nope. Just nope.

Instead, try:

“Where are my keys?”
“You’re going to be late.”
“I won’t be late if I can just find my keys. Get up and help me.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to miss the flight again.”
“I’m not going to miss it. Don’t tell your father about this. Okay?”

3-Dialogue is not for extended ruminating.

“I can’t help wondering, why am I here? I mean, not in a Biblical meaning-of-life kind of way, as in why are we here on earth experiencing this insignificant existence? More of a how did I get to this point in my life where my fate seems to hang on the balance of despair and insanity? I have no joy, no hope in this moment. Nothing to bring me a sense of peace in my pathetic actuality. Just a never-ending stream of questions that don’t make sense anymore.”


Please don’t waste the reader’s time with an empty scene like that. When in doubt, put it in narrative:

Gina went on a rant about life again. Most of us ignored her.

Learning to craft good dialogue is one of the most critical aspects of learning to write good fiction. By using gesture, silence, sensory clues, descriptive settings, unspoken thoughts, an association, or subtext interspersed with the words your characters speak, your dialogue will come alive.

So don’t hesitate to make those characters talk…just use those words wisely!


Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Katherine Boyle of Veritas Literary. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.