Friday, November 18, 2016

Choosing Our Words

The topic for this month’s blog post is about words. How does word choice develop a story’s character? How do you use and select your words?

Wow and double-wow!  Our stories are composed of words, and how do we select among the 25,000 to 35,000 words in the writer’s vocabulary?   

Let’s break this down into describing someone who is angry.

Jack is irked.

Jack is pissed.

Jack is mad as hell.

Jack is batshit.

Jack’s face is crimson and he looks like he’s going to explode.

Jack feels a boiling thermonuclear rage tripped to explode.

Not only does each sentence tell us something about Jack, but it also says something about the author. “Pissed” and “batshit” are current colloquial expressions, not likely to be used by an elderly writer. Also they are “telling” us how Jack feels. Jack feels a “boiling thermonuclear rage” shows us, as does Jack’s face is crimson and he looks like he’s going to explode.” We could write 20 more sentence to indicate Jack is angry, and each one would have a different degree of anger and be in a different voice. 

Just this week, I re-read The Great Gatsby for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, but for the first time as a writer. Fitzgerald’s long, beautiful, literary sentences blew me away, but not everyone in my book club liked them. “Too long, ” and  “Too slow to get going,” were two of the comments.  The moral of this is that not everyone will be thrilled by your words. Words become “voice,” and every character in a story has a voice.  The words a character speaks and thinks betray his or her character. 

How do I select my words? As a former English major who, back in the day, was immersed is the classics of literature, from Homer and Shakespeare to James Joyce and ee cummings, I know a lot of words.  My parents were from different parts of the country and they had their own words and sayings. When we were in a grimy industrial part of town, my mother would exclaim that we were  “in the vinegar works.” I still say that. When my dad had difficulty with a task, he would mutter that  “it’s too wet to plow.”  He also spoke of someone who had gotten rich or had good luck as being “in tall cotton.” I love these old expressions that are still in our language. Expressions from the farm are great for a rural character—they really say a lot about him or her in a few words. So I  try to write dialogue that my character would actually use, keeping in mind that even a character who was a total bore would have some felicities of speech. His speech needn’t be boring. The French have a phrase for using the right word. They call it 
le mot juste. 

At my first writer’s conference, an author (literary) advised us against using words like “ensconced,” because they sound kind of, well, high-falutin. (Another good word). If you’re writing a gritty mystery, the language will be much different than a romance for the Christian market. Some readers will put down a book at the first hint of profanity. Others will put it down if a street cop says, “gosh darn.” There you go. The words have to be right for the characters, the story and the market you’re writing for. Sometimes it’s a high-wire act. Sometimes it’s a crapshoot. As writer’s we choose our words with care. They do a lot of heavy lifting.

The great authors listed below all have something to say about choosing words this week. We all have different ideas. Read on! 


Rhobin Lee Courtright said...

Strait forward with good examples and well explained; enjoyed your post.

Rachael Kosinski said...

I really loved this post! I also never heard of the phrases you mentioned your parents saying. Very interesting!

Skyewriter said...

Excellent list of options to show how Jack is angry. The English language has so many options to describe the same emotion, thought, etc and we tend to focus on just a few, but the variety gives more depth to the writing.

Anthology Authors said...

I still use some expressions that are uncommon to Los Angeles because I come from the Central Valley. It's a more rural, country existence, although I didn't grow up on a farm. One of my favorite expressions I use at swim practice to describe someone who starts out fast leading the lane and dies after a few sets is to compare them to a ruptured duck. This never fails to make my lane mates laugh, but it's a perfect description in just a few words. (I inherited that saying from my mother.)

Excellent post.


Beverley Bateman said...

I enjoyed all your examples of Jack's anger. Also that you use dialogue to help develop and distinguish your characters.

Dr Bob Rich said...

Judy, your parents' sayings are completely new to me, but were expressive and gave me the intended meaning. Perhaps we need a dictionary for such turns of phrase for everywhere!

Sometimes, I use an Australian phrase, and am surprised that people of slightly different culture don't understand. This is another reason for beta readers.