Word Choice is the Incantation Behind the Magic by David Kent


What’s the difference between ordinary writing and extraordinary works?

Word choice.

That is not some editorial decree to run out and buy a new thesaurus (although if you don’t own J. I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder, you should go get it), there is a lot more to word choice than a simple book learned substitution of terms.

First let’s address your sentences as a whole.  Take any sentence out of your most recent work (eventually, take them all out) and challenge yourself to find three more ways of writing that same sentence differently.  While working on that, run across the hall and wake up that flakey poet in residence.  Maybe your internal poet might see a better way of presenting that idea?  Ask yourself (and that head-in-the-sky, idealist poet you have in there) can these intentions be expressed with symbolism, analogy, metaphor, simile, or contrasting scenarios?

Practice finding new, different and novel (pun intended) ways to express your thoughts.  I admit this does take practice, and it does require study.  Read the classics, read the acclaimed, read the published, then go back and read them again.  Watch the way the masters take a simple idea, apply the magic of word choice and turn lead into GOLD.
A favorite line of mine from Nabokov’s Lolita (oh, I am going to catch hell from Jennifer (but it was a good example, Jen, I never said it was yours exclusively)), as Vladimir described an ill kept lawn, he wrote, “Most of the dandelions had changed from suns into moons.” Can you see that lawn?  Is that not a great way to describe weeds?  Please, I want you to remember that this was written by a man who grew up speaking Russian, went to school in France (speaking French) and came to the U.S. with English as his THIRD language. Do you really think that YOU, with YOUR skills and mastery of your FIRST language, couldn’t come up with something unique?  C’mon, give yourself credit.
Next let’s scan your writing for passé / dated language, clichés and unintentional informality.  I just about break this rule every time I write.  Seems like just about every sentence I write with more than five words, just ends up with just in it.  It just bothers the hell out of me.  Really, I just hate that word just. But I say it all of the time and it sneaks into my writing.

I would be surprised if some equally mundane word or phrase hasn’t infiltrated your spoken language and threatens to worm its way into your writing.  When you re-read, don’t read in your own voice; read with the new eyes of your potential audience.  One relatively simple trick is to read your story out loud, and slowly.  If you succumbed to the habit of poor language and dismal sentence structure, the offending words will stick to your tongue like the purple dye of cheap grape candy.  Drink, spit, brush, spit again and your tongue will still look like Barney is your ghostwriter (or perhaps your T-Rex writer).

Moving on, the next thing you need to parse and analyze, is your story’s dialogue.  Go hide in your bedroom or out in the shed and act out your story!  Are your characters speaking like the people you wrote them to be, or are the people in your story talking just like you.  Excuse me for a moment while I strap on this safety helmet; you’ll understand in a second (have you seen my partner, Adrianna?).

Not long ago I was helping a friend with a story.  In a scene were several seasoned, rough and ready, deadly combat marines facing an as-yet unknown enemy.  One of the subordinate soldiers asked his CO if they should “blow the barn to smithereens.”  Duck!  Here comes the bat!

I was cussed at for the next few days, as my PITA researched military jargon and combat lingo to pen the right words for her platoon of doomed marines.  In the end the Mist lifted and her soldiers sounded like the deadly combatants she needed for the story to work.

You need to ask yourself, who are these characters?  Are they soldiers, doctors, nurses, teenagers, octogenarians, drug addicts, thieves, cops, Bible thumping preachers, unrepentant sinners, promiscuous bar flies, ex-cons or latently homosexual college professors?  Take the story’s action off the page, and look at the naked dialogue.  (Get your mind out of the gutter.)  Who is talking?  Do your words sound the way someone in their position would talk?  You want some good examples of some bad examples?  Watch the Lifetime network.  Often the dialogue is so unbelievable that I am embarrassed that the writer is credited as being a writer.  I think I need a new title for my job!

Next we need to replace your story’s action back on the page.  This time I want you to take a red pencil and divide your story into action segments.  Whether through summary narration, character actions, crisis building, resolution or dénouement, your story is in constant action. (If not maybe you should consider starting over.)  Now with your story segmented, examine each of the portions and define it using no more than one or two words.  Give a name to the action taking place.  Once you have defined the general tone of the action, take out your Synonym Finder (or thesaurus) and start listing as many words as possible that imply or complement that of action.  If there is fire, find a list of words that relate to smoke, heat, flame, burnt, ash, charred, inferno, hell.  These are referred to as colors.  With your list in hand, go word by word through your action segment and insert as many colors as is possible.  Paint this picture with heartfelt passion.

When you’ve finished that, go back through the words you didn’t change and be SURE that there are no words that contrast with the color of the action.  You would not want rosy, prize, win, award, ribbon, trophy, optimistic or leader if your character is in a downward spiral or in the process of failing at his efforts.

Coloring your scenes with deliberate word choices will subliminally draw your reader into the mood of the story; dialogue will sell the characters; idiom that matches the time, place and culture of your story creates credibility, and innovative expression will demonstrate your mastery of the craft.  Writing takes effort; great writing takes great effort.  Nabokov, Faulkner, Chekov, Hemingway, Joyce, Kafka and Melville were not made in a single day.  They practiced and failed and learned and grew and found their unique path to the immortality we celebrate; your path is waiting.

Did you REALLY think you were done?  C’mon, no one said this was going to be easy.  Get that story back out!   Read through it one more time and find everyplace you used the same word twice (or God forbid three times).  Recheck those sentences carefully, are there other word substitutions that might work?  Could you restructure the presentation of the story without using and re-using the same words.  Even your grandma’s 1950s vintage edition of Roget’s Thesaurus might suggest a few words to improve your writing.

Now, study, practice, improve, and next time amaze me when you need a woman to scream with the wind howling, while the door to creaks in a portentous warning of supernatural danger; I want to experience that high octave modulation of incomprehensible terror from Helen, while the trees of the dark copse weep their unheeded warning amidst the howl of the dark storm.  Within the quiet halls of the deserted manse, the rusty pivots of the hinge brake hard against the unlubricated pins with an eerily down pitched whistle that announced the ominous entry of the demonic poltergeist.

Word choice is the incantation behind the Magic of Writing.  If you study the ancient texts, learn lessons from sorcerers with more experience, practice your spell casting, and have confidence in your powers, you too can create extraordinary literature from ordinary writing.

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About David Kent

I promote and encourage the advancement and education of writers everywhere. I dream of a society that once again incorporated literature into the acculturation of their children, replacing the empty calories of 22 minute sitcoms and mindless reality TV. But first we write, then prod them to read, and finally hope for the best. Read more at http://writerinthemountains.blogspot.com/

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