Category Archives: Choosing the right words

Digging Up Jewels

diamondIts all a bit pre-Christmas mental here, and its possible you are feeling the same way, so lets share a little time avoiding writing those cards, shall we?

Lately I’ve been collecting words.

I came across this word in a novel I was reading, and fell in love:

craquelure

Isn’t that just a marvellous way to describe an old man’s face?

Then I started noticing other words when they popped up:

nurture

topaz

Words I hadn’t really thought about in years, though I knew the meanings.

plangent

planish

Words that are nice to roll around on your tongue.  Words that pop like red roses in your paragraphs.

scrum

rhomboid

As you voyage through the festive season, why not make a list of the interesting words you come across.  Its not a hard or time-consuming thing to do – I scribble mine on the scrappy little pad of paper I keep by my bed for the purposes of writing to do lists and things I have to remember in the morning.

maroon

fecund

Then I transfer them to the back page of my writing notebook when I have a moment to spare.  Easily done.

flaunt

flaxen

I’ve got a bit of a passion for F words at the moment, as you can see!

They don’t have to be on a theme or for a reason.  I collect them only because they appeal to me.  They sing out from the page.

Now I’ve got a growing resource for making my writing interesting and alluring – I’ve written a little about this before, and I’m coming back to it.  I’m thinking about creating a kind of utilitarian type prose, a la Hemingway, but studded with jewels of unusual and seductive words.

So, why not see what little jewels you can dig up?

Happy Creating,

EF

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Choosing the Right Words: Emotion and Character

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series, 'Sherlock'

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series, ‘Sherlock’

So, in this little series, we’ve talk about using verbs and the extra information you can communicate when you choose them mindfully.

(To read the first post, click here.  To read the second post, click here.)

Today I want to talk about how you can use verbs to convey character and emotion.  Consider the following sentence:

Sherlock left the room.

This sentence tells us nothing about the character or how he feels.  All it gives us is a bit of rudimentary choreography.  Now lets play with some variations:

Sherlock swept out of the room. ‘Swept’ gives the suggestion not only of Sherlock’s imperious, and rather vain, nature but also of what he is wearing, that long overcoat swirling around his heels.  A person has to have the attention of everyone present in order to sweep out, particularly that of the narrator (and as usual with these characters, we can assume its John’s point of view).  Using this verb tells us something about John too, therefore.  It shows the amount of attention he pays to Sherlock, and his feelings about how Sherlock moves when he leaves – admiration and perhaps exasperation are implied.

Sherlock stormed out.  Sherlock wouldn’t stomp anywhere.  He’s too much of a drama queen for that.  Life with Sherlock is like being at the heart of a hurricane, so this verb implies his power and presence.

John stormed out.  John is also capable of storming out.  He’s a little bulldog of a man with anger issues and BAMF tendencies, so we can hear in this verb his impressive presence.  However, John is also capable of stomping in a way Sherlock isn’t.  There is something more down-to-earth about stomping that doesn’t fit with Sherlock’s persona.

Sherlock flounced out.  Sherlock, with all those curls, the flowing coat, the self-absorption and vanity, would definitely flounce.  This verb tells us so much about his character and attention-seeking – which of course, John feeds.  By using this verb within John’s point of view, we can actually see him feeding it!   Flounce also implies a certain degree of sulking, so we get the emotion involved in his movement.

Sherlock exited the room.  No one exits a room except in the instructions for a fire drill!  This verb tells us absolutely nothing about his character, movement or dress, or about the emotional circumstances in which he leaves.  What it does tell us  is that the writer is unimaginative and stiff.  If you are ever tempted to use the word exited, either:

  • think of something better, or
  • skip the action altogether because it is probably something so mundane that you can let the reader assume it has happened, e.g. After Sherlock had swept out, John sat back in his chair…

I hope that this little rumination on choosing words has opened a window on the methods of writing for you in a practical way, and enabled you to think about how you choose your words more mindfully.  Your writing will definitely benefit from it if you do.

In the meantime, if you are interested in thinking more about this subject, you can’t do better than reading Chapter 2 of Francine Prose’s marvellous book, ‘Reading like a Writer: A Guide for people who love books, and for those who want to write them’.  In fact, read the whole book anyway.  Its brilliant, and Prose explains things far better than I ever could.

Happy Writing,

EF

Choosing the Right Words to Convey an Action

Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox in the TV series 'Lewis'

(l to r) Laurence Fox as DS Hathaway and Kevin Whately as DI Lewis in the TV series ‘Lewis’

The reason I started thinking about being mindful when choosing words is this:  the other night about 4am I was lying in bed wrestling with a paragraph for a story.  Yes, I do this.  A lot.

In one of the Universe’s most amusing ironies, disturbed sleep and insomnia are symptoms of my ME/CFS, so I can sleep for Britain during daylight hours, but can’t go for more than about 3 hours at a stretch at night.  Then I lie awake, waiting for the next bout of sleep to come, and its helpful to have something to entertain my brain in the meantime.  This is when I write.  Not at my desk, but lying down in bed.  In case you are wondering how I remember things, I tell myself the same scenes over and over again, perfecting them, until I know them pretty much by heart.  I write them down during the day, once I’m happy I’ve got them right.  Yes, its weird, but its my process, and it seems to work.

So anyway, there I am, lying in the dark, wrestling with a scene in which Detective Sergeant Hathaway has phoned Detective Inspector Lewis from his hospital bed for a reassuring chat.  The two have just admitted their feelings for one another, but none of the talking and working things out has been done.  Things are still delicate, tender and vulnerable between them.  Having had a quiet, romantic chat, Hathaway ends the call, and Lewis, from whose point of view the scene is told, lies in his own bed, staring at the ceiling and contemplating how he feels for his colleague.

So how to convey that moment of transition from phone call to meditation in a single sentence?  Here are the possibilities I came up with:

“He hung up.”

I don’t know, it just sounds too abrupt, as if Hathaway has rung off in a rage.  I reject this option.

“The line went dead.”

Even worse.  This suggests not only anger, but perhaps even peril – maybe an assailant has disconnected the phone or snatched it from beloved Hathaway’s hand, or there was an accident or an explosion that terminated the call prematurely.  I reject this option too.

“He terminated the call.”

People don’t actually think like this.  Its as bad as saying:

“He exited the building.”

Nobody uses this tone inside their own head.  Verbs like terminated and exited are too distant and clinical.  They contribute to what is known in the business as the ‘Authorial Voice’.  In other words, the reader is aware that an omniscient storyteller-author is telling them what is happening, and what to think, rather than opening a door through which they can view the experiences of the characters themselves.  If you want to read authorial voice done well, read Dickens or Thackeray, who are always commenting on their characters in this way.  Its old-fashioned, and uncomfortable for most modern readers.  Don’t do it.  It just looks like you don’t know what you are doing.  Always tell your stories from inside your character’s heads, regardless of what tense you are using.

And incidentally, words like terminated and exited are too formal.  They should be kept for technical manuals and academic papers.  If you are in doubt about whether a word is too formal, think about how you use language inside your own head.  Would you think ‘I terminated that call’?  No, I didn’t think so.

“He rang off.”

A little gentler than “He hung up”, but still a bit too brusque, as if there has been a tiff.  I reject this one too.

I try to think of another verb for concluding a call, concluding again being too formal, but can’t think of one, so I decide to go for my next option, which is to skip the obvious:

“After Hathaway rang off, Lewis lay on his back and stared at the ceiling.”

You see what I’ve done here?  I don’t really need to tell the reader that the conversation ends, because all readers know that telephone conversations end eventually, so I nod to the fact, and then concentrate on Lewis’s reaction.

If an act isn’t noteworthy in terms of action or emotion, if it doesn’t move the story along, then you can safely leave it out and allow the reader to make their own assumptions about the obvious. 

After all, I don’t need to tell my readers everything Lewis did when he woke up that morning to get to the phone call, from the first yawn, through using the loo and scratching his bum, to noticing that the instant coffee in the jar has gone lumpy and that he’s almost out of bread for toast.  What is important is not which toothpaste he uses, but the phone call from his future lover, and its aftermath.  That is what moves the story forwards, and that is what the reader is interested in.

“Lewis dropped the phone handset onto the covers and lay back, Hathaway’s richly textured voice still echoing in his head.”

This tells us a bit more about Lewis’s reaction to Hathaway, and the effect of their conversation, but dropping the phone sounds a bit too abrupt as well.  He would be too dreamy and relaxed by this point to drop anything!

“Afterwards, he lay back, allowing the memory of Hathaway’s richly textured voice to flow through him.”

This doesn’t mention ending the phonecall at all.  It entirely concentrates on Lewis’s response, emphasising the sensual effect it has on him.

By iteration, I have completely removed the need for solving the original problem, which was finding a way to communicate the end of the call, and I have added to the emotional impact of the moment as well.  So this is the version I will go with, at least for now.  After all, first drafts always get changed.

I hope that by walking you through the process of wording the paragraph, I have been able to show you how much choosing your words mindfully can enhance your writing, and how you communicate emotion and action to your reader.  It might take a bit of time, but thinking through the effect you want to achieve will make a huge difference for your reader.

If you want to read the previous post on this subject, click here.

To read the next post in this series, click here.

And if you haven’t come across the delicious TV series Lewis (called Inspector Lewis in the US, I believe), I highly recommend it.  You can read a fanfic I wrote for it here.

Happy writing!

EF

Choosing the Right Words – An Introduction

I want to talk a little bit this week about the idea of choosing the right words when you write.  About thinking carefully about the words you use to express a particular mood, character or action.

This probably seems a ridiculously obvious concept, but to neglect it means abandoning a whole myriad of ways in which you can make your stories deeper, enriching them for your reader.

Think about a man walking.  You could say:

  • He ambled
  • He limped
  • He sashayed
  • He scampered
  • He strode
  • He marched
  • He hobbled
  • He stomped
  • He inched
  • He shuffled
  • He scurried
  • He strolled
  • He paced
  • He sauntered

And these are only a few of the synonyms you could use for the verb ‘to walk’.  Yet, they each tell us something different about the man doing the walking, and raise questions in the reader’s mind about why he is moving in that particular way.

For instance, the man who is limping – Was he born with the limp, or has he acquired it, and if he has, was it recently or a long time ago?  Does he have some physical disability that limits his movement, or has he just this minute been in an accident?

He might, for example be limping because he is very old.

Perhaps he limps as a result of an old war wound – like our friend Dr John Watson.  This introduces a level of poignancy, of heroism wrapped in tragedy, and invokes our sympathy for him.

A man who strides has self confidence.  He holds his head high, intent on getting where he is going.  He may be a man on a mission – and we want to know what that mission is!

A man who sashays might be a bit camp, might be a dancer, might be charming a companion, moving in this way to make her laugh and draw her in.  Is this the start of a big romance?

A man who ambles is in no particular hurry.  He is relaxed.  He has time.  We might think him lazy, perhaps, or more likely, a man on holiday from the usual stresses of his life, sure in the knowledge that everything can happen at his own pace.

Usually we think of ‘Show, Not Tell’, the old writers’ maxim, as something overt.  Don’t tell us how John Watson got his war wound, for example.  Better to show us.  Show us his recurring nightmare of the moment it happened (which also demonstrates to us how he is barely coping with the trauma, as well as showing us the actual trauma itself –two for the price of one!).

By using the right words, evocative and interesting ones, we can communicate to the reader so much  more, and in such a subtle way that they barely even notice being told – which is true writing skill!

Writing Exercise:

Think more about the verbs I have used in the list above, and what they communicate about the man doing the movement.  Choose one and use it as a prompt for a writing exercise.  Take fifteen minutes to free-write in your writers notebook about the man who marches, the man who scampers, or any of the others.  (Come up with some of your own, if you like.)

Make a character sketch.  Who is this man?  What does he look like?  What age is he?  What does he do – and how does the way he dresses and moves communicate that?  Why does he move the way he does?  Where is he going in this particular fashion, and why?  Is anybody with him, and are they affecting his way of moving?

When you have finished, look over what you have written.  Can you see any clichés?  Remember, while clichés are usually clichés because they are true, they don’t have to come across as clichés!  Always be on the lookout for clichés in your writing, so that you can remould them into strange, eye-catching virtues.

You could use this character sketch as the core of a larger piece.  Or you could take the character you have created and write about him moving in another of the ways listed, repeating the exercise to learn more about him.  Why would he change his mode of movement?  Is he responding to the requirements of others, or affecting a certain walk to give a particular impression?  If so, why?

Spend time playing with these verbs, and let them take your imagination where it will.  Most of all, have fun!

(If you want to read the next post in this series, click here.)

Happy Writing,

EF