Category Archives: Enrich your writing skills

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 – 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