Tag Archives: word choices

The Short Story part 1: word choice #amwriting

Last week, we discussed how important exploring the theme is when writing for a themed anthology. This week, we are going deeper, finding ways to show a story and keep it within the word count limits.

Skill as a writer comes with practice. As we continue to work with our writing groups, we become technically better at the mechanics (grammar and punctuation).

Voice is how we bend the rules and is our authorly fingerprint. It will always be distinctly ours, because we all speak differently. However, many of the ways we express ourselves when speaking don’t translate well to writing within a tight framework.

Writing to a strict word count limit forces an author to pare away all that is unnecessary. To do that in 4,000 words or fewer, we choose words that have power.

We have talked about this before: active prose is Noun-Verb centric. If you are writing only for yourself, write any way you choose. But if you are hoping to sell books, it’s wise to keep in mind that today’s reader has high expectations and a great many other books to choose from.

We who write genre fiction (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller, Romance) must use words that are dynamic and convey a feeling of action.  In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and more powerful.

Say you have been invited to submit your work to an anthology. You have been given the theme which plays well to an idea you’ve had for a short story, and you are ready to write it.

But what is the mood you want to convey with your prose? Where you place the words in the sentence dramatically affects the mood, which either highlights or plays down the theme.

  • Placement of verbs in the sentence
    1. Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
    2. Nouns followed by verbs feel active.

Let’s look at four sentences, two of which are actively phrased, and two are passive. All describe the same self-destructive person, and none are “wrong.” Each conveys a different mood because of how they are expressed.

  1. She runs toward danger, never away.
  2. She never runs away from danger.
  3. Danger approaches, and she runs to meet it.
  4. If it’s dangerous, she runs to it.

I like it when an author makes good use of contrast when describing the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence. Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

Verbs are power words. If you choose forceful words, you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be an intense scene.

How we add depth to our prose without weakening it takes time and involves thought in the revision process. Consider word order, think about where you place your verbs, and use ordinary words that most people know and don’t have to look up in a dictionary.

We who write fiction create pictures without paint. We must learn to convey an inner landscape and imaginary world by painting a picture of the setting with a few deliberately chosen words. We also must show the atmosphere, the emotions, and the action.

Readers want us to use words that are “primary colors,” the words most people with an average education understand without having to go to a dictionary.

An example of this is Escape from Spiderhead,” a short science fiction story written by George Saunders and published in his 2013 anthology collection Tenth of December. It was first published in the New Yorker on Dec. 13, 2010.

This is a riveting story, one that challenges the reader to consider the ideas of free will and determinism. It also points out how easy it is for a society to strip certain individuals of their humanity, and how we justify it to ourselves.

Escape from Spiderhead is gut-wrenching and memorable because the words Saunders used to paint it with and the way he used them have power.

Emotional impact is created when an author combines common, everyday words in uncommon ways. I love finding an author whose words speak to me. Their stories surprise me, and the ideas they transmit fundamentally alters my perceptions of the world around me.

Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

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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’

Mystery

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 – www.PowerThesaurus.com  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. http://ianchadwick.com/blog/three-six-seven-nine-how-many-basic-plots/ (accessed 16 June 2020).

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