When we put the first words of a story on paper, the images and events we imagine as we write have the power to move us. Because we see each scene fully formed in our minds, we are under the illusion that what we have written conveys to a reader the same power that moved us. Once we’ve written “the end” it requires no further effort, right?
I don’t know about your work, but usually, at that stage my manuscript reads like a laundry list.
The trick is to understand that, while the first draft has many passages that shine, more of what we have written is only promising. The first draft contains the seeds of what we believe we have written. Like a sculptor, we must work to shave away the detritus and reveal the truth of the narrative.
One way we do this is by injecting subtly descriptive prose into our narrative. Properly deployed, power words can be subtle and serve as descriptors, yet don’t tell the reader what to feel.
Think of them like falling leaves in autumn. On their own, they weigh nothing, feel like nothing. Put those leaves in a pile, and they have weight. When we incorporate subtle descriptors into the narrative, they come together to convey a sense of depth.
These are words that convey an emotional barrage in a succinct packet.
Let’s consider a story where we want to convey a sense of danger, without saying “it was dangerous.” What we must do is find words that shade the atmosphere toward fear.
Power words can be found beginning with every letter of the alphabet. What are some “B” words that convey a hint of danger, but aren’t “telling” words?
When you incorporate any of the above “B” words into your prose, you are posting a road sign for the reader, a notice that “ahead lies danger.” Mingle them with other power words, and you have an air of danger.
As authors, it is our job to convey a picture of events.
But words sometimes fail us.
The best resource you can have in your personal library is a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms. Your word processing program may offer you some synonyms when you right click on a word. However, to develop a wide vocabulary of commonly understood words, you should try to find a book like the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms.
It’s important to keep your word choices recognizable, not too obscure. When a reader must stop and look up words too frequently, they will feel like you are talking over their head.
Even so, readers like it when you assume they are intelligent and aren’t afraid to use a variety of words. Yes, sometimes one must use technical terms, but I appreciate authors who assume the reader is new to the terminology and offer us a meaning.
Sprinkling your prose with obscure, technical, or pretentious words is not a good idea. As a reader, I find it frustrating to have to stop and look up big words too frequently.
Let’s look at the emotion of discontent. How can it affect the mood of a piece? What words can we incorporate to shape the mood of the narrative to reinforce a character’s growing dissatisfaction? A few words that most people know might be:
How we incorporate words of all varieties into our prose is up to each of us. We all sound different when we speak aloud, and the same is true for our writing voice. We can tell the story using any mode we choose but the first line of any piece must let the reader know what they are in for.
I meant to run away today.
If that were the opening line of a short story, I would continue reading. Two words, run away, hit hard in this context, feeling a little shocking as an opener. The protagonist is the narrator and is speaking directly to us, which is a bold choice. Right away, you hope you are in for something out of the ordinary.
That line shows intention, implies a situation that is unbearable, and offers us a hint of the personality of the narrator. Who are they, and what is so unbearable?
Here are lines from a different type of story, one told from a third person point of view:
The battered chair creaked as Aengus sat back. “So, what’s your plan then? Are we going to walk up to his front door and say, ‘Hello. We’re here to kill you’?”
This is a conversation, but it shows intention, environment, and personality. Battered is a power word, and so is creaked.
And here is one final scene, one told from a close third person point of view and showing yet another way to incorporate subtle power words into the prose:
Sera saw the vine-covered ruins of Barlow as an allegory of her past. A part of her past had been burned away. She’d been destroyed but was coming back to life in ways she’d never foreseen.
The power words are: ruins, burned away, destroyed. The stories we write come from deep within us. Words sometimes fail us and we lean too heavily on one word that says what we mean. This is hard for us to spot in our own work, but if you set it aside, you may notice repetitious prose.
A friend of mine uses word clouds to show her crutch words. In a word cloud, the larger the word, the more often it appears in the text. Since I am notoriously short on words, let’s see how this post looks as a word cloud.
It came out surprisingly colorful!