Choosing Words to add Depth #amwriting

Words with few alternatives become problems for me, as in certain circumstances, they can become repetitive. Sometimes, the thesaurus that comes with my word-processing program doesn’t offer me enough substitutes to make a good choice.

For that reason, I have both the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus near to hand. When I find myself searching for an alternative word, I refer to these books.

I find it saves time to refer to the hard copy book rather than the internet. However, that is a perfectly reasonable cost-free alternative. Having good reference books at hand keeps my attention on my work, rather than surfing the net.

We all use the same words to tell the same stories.

Why do I say such a terrible thing? It’s true—there only a few basic plots from which all stories are derived, and we have only so many words in the English language with which to tell them.

Ian Chadwick offers us this observation in his article, Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots?

 Last summer, a story in The Atlantic told of university researchers who used software to parse through 2,000 works of literature to determine there are six basic plots:

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Which is one less than Christopher Booker lists in his lengthy 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Around the end of his book, Booker actually lists two more plots which are, historically speaking, not as common (by his assessment, they are late additions to our literary canon, although I think that could be argued against), so he discounts them as less important:

Rebellion Against ‘The One’


So, yes, we are all telling the same stories, and we all must use words with the same meanings, but we sound different on the page.

Why is this?

The way we habitually write prose is our unique voice. The words I use might mean the same as those you use, but I might choose a different form of it.

Take the word loud:

  • Noisy
  • Boisterous
  • Deafening
  • Raucous
  • Lurid
  • Flamboyant
  • Ostentatious
  • Thunderous
  • Strident
  • Vulgar
  • Loudmouthed

These are only a few of the many options we have –  lists 1,992 alternatives for the word loud.

When we write, we are building a specific image for our readers. We select words intentionally for their nuances. We want to convey our idea of the mood and atmosphere as well as the information. What ambiance does the setting convey, and how can our word choices add depth to that feeling?

Thunderous conveys more power than loud, even though they mean the same thing in the context of sound.

Lurid conveys more power than loud, and in the context of color, they mean the same thing.

Don’t get too creative, though. Do your readers a favor and use words that are common enough that most people won’t need a dictionary to understand the narrative.

Would you choose the word obstreperous or the more common form, argumentative? They mean the same thing, but both begin with a vowel and feel passive. Hostile, confrontational, surly—many common words convey different shades of the meaning in a more straightforward, more powerful way.

This is not to say that less commonly used words should be ignored. Your prose should never be “dumbed-down.”

The point is, don’t use words that my Texan editor refers to as “ten-dollar words.” A ten-dollar word is a long obscure word used in place of one that is smaller and more well-known.

The origin of ten-dollar words dates back to the early 19th century when writers and speakers would use pretentious words to seem smarter than the average person. This obnoxious habit turns potential readers away, as no one likes to be talked down to.

When it comes to word selection, consider the image you want to convey as if you were an artist. Make an effort to find the right words to show the story.

Words are the paint you will use to draw the picture for the reader. Plot, no matter how well constructed, is only a framework for the story.

As a reader progresses through a narrative, their imaginations supply images about the people and the events. The real story happens inside the reader’s head.

The reader’s experience is made richer or poorer by the words you choose.

If you build your story out of words that evoke powerful images, they will get to know the characters, feel as if they live in that world, and absorb the events more quickly.

They will be compelled to keep turning the page.

As a reader, I live for those books written by authors who aren’t afraid to choose their words.

Credits and Attributions:

Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots? by Ian Chadwick © 2017 Scripturient. (accessed 16 June 2020).


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10 responses to “Choosing Words to add Depth #amwriting

  1. Hi Connie, great post. I give my thesaurus a workout. Apple’s operating system for the Mac has a popup dictionary that provides Apple’s dictionary, New Oxford American Dictionary, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, plus a link to Wikipedia. I find it easier and faster than using Microsoft Word’s built-in thesaurus. I find myself duplicating the same word often within the same action scene. It’s maddening when your optional word doesn’t give the same expression (desire) you intended. Is it a mortal sin to use the same word more than once, if the optional don’t meet your criterion? Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a similar problem with the word “sword.” I can use blade or weapon. Since the kind of weapon my folks use is based on a Claymore, I can’t say saber, epee, rapier, cutlass or any of the other terms we think of as swords. Sometimes we are forced to use a word twice, or find a work-around. It’s one of the more frustrating things in my writing life!

      And truthfully, the average reader won’t notice the occasional repetition of a word in a paragraph. They will only notice if it happens too frequently.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Johanna Flynn

    Psychic network! I was fussing with overused words today. I agree that sometimes you have to use the same word twice. There have been instances where the reader would get confused if I didn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An important post, methinks. I try not to repeat the same word, but as Chuck says, sometimes the alternatives just aren’t right. No two words ever have exactly the same meaning or convey the same feeling. That’s why there are so many synonyms.
    One thing that we as writers are told so often is only to use ‘said’ in dialogue. Then we’re told not to repeat words! Confusing, or what?
    Personally, I think only using ‘said’ is as bad as any repetition and gets boring. I often get out of that by omitting the dialogue tag and using an action beat instead.

    Liked by 1 person

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