We all use the same words to tell the same stories.
Why do I say such a terrible thing? It’s true. All stories are derived from a few basic plots, and we have only so many words in the English language with which to tell them.
Plot Archetypes as defined by Christopher Booker in his work, The Seven Basic Plots:
- Overcoming the monster
- The quest
- Voyage and return
- The Rule of Three
The words we habitually use to show a scene will be recognizable as our voice. I know a lot of words and their alternatives, and I try to learn new ones every day. But I often find myself stuck when pounding out a first draft, using a particular word over and over. My brain knows what I’m trying to say but can’t be too creative.
Fortunately, this sin is noticeable when I get to revisions, and that is when I hunt down the synonyms, alternative words that mean the same thing.
Words with only a small number of alternatives become problems for me. This happens in my work with the word sword. The other options for the word sword are many. Unfortunately, most describe a specific type of weapon – epee, rapier, cutlass, saber/sabre, etc.
Unfortunately, my swords are only broadswords or claymores. Thus, I am limited to sword, blade, weapon … you get the drift. The lack of alternatives does one good thing, though – it keeps me from indulging in long, drawn-out fight scenes.
Other words cause problems too. Sometimes, the thesaurus available in my word-processing program doesn’t offer me enough substitutes to make a good choice.
For that reason, I have the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus near to hand. I also have a book called Activate, written by Damon Suede, a thesaurus of verbs, actions, and tactics. I refer to these books when I must search for an alternative to a word I am leaning too heavily on.
Which happens far too often.
Memory is a mushy thing. I prefer a hard copy reference book rather than the internet, as I remember what I read on paper better than what I read on screen. However, the internet is a perfectly reasonable cost-free alternative. I get sidetracked too easily when doing research on the net. Hard copies of reference books encourage me to do the research and get back to work.
So, we know that we all tell stories with fundamentally similar plots, 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 word I select might mean the same as the one you use, but I might choose a different form.
When we write, we build a specific image for our readers. We select words intentionally for their nuances (distinctions, subtleties, shades, refinements, etc.).
We use words that convey our vision of the mood, atmosphere, and information. You and I may be writing the same plot, but my vision of it is different from yours.
Let’s write a story about a hero who finds a magical object and an evil entity who wants possession of it.
J.R.R. Tolkien may have used that plot in the Lord of the Rings, but what we write will be ours, not his. Your words will show the hero in a setting and communicate an atmosphere completely different from what my words express.
How do our word choices add depth to world-building? An example might be sound or color. How do you show an intense sound or color? Loud is a word that works for both sound and color.
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.
Let’s look more closely at the word loud:
These are only a few of the many options we have to work with. The website www.PowerThesaurus.com lists 1,992 alternatives for the word loud.
How about the word “disruptive”? It’s a straightforward, blunt adjective. Maybe you don’t want to say it bluntly. 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 the information that a person is being difficult in a simple but powerful way. The synonyms for disruptive express many different shades of meaning and might be more appropriate to your narrative.
Use your vocabulary but don’t get too creative. Do your readers a favor and use words that most people won’t need a dictionary to understand.
I don’t mean to say that rarely used words should be ignored. Our prose should never be “dumbed-down,” but we shouldn’t use big words just to show how literate we are.
My Texan editor refers to those convoluted morsels of madness 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. This is why I probably wouldn’t use obstreperous in place of disruptive, but I might choose rebellious or confrontational.
The problem is, sometimes, I can’t find the right words to show what I envision. I can see it but can’t express it. It annoys me to leave that scene and come back to it later.
Other times I have all the words I need, and those are the best days, the days I am glad to be a writer.
We imagine and assemble stories for other people’s entertainment. We paint those images with words carefully chosen to draw the most precise framework for the reader to hang their imagination on.
The real story happens inside the reader’s head.
The words we choose make the reader’s experience richer or poorer. As a reader, I live for those books written by authors who are bold when they choose their words.