Take it away, Sarah!
I thought about this topic when reading A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck. Here’s one example of what I mean: “We didn’t breathe for listening.” There are a million ways to say this, but these words are unique to this character.
After pondering, I came up with five different ways authors can consciously use word choice.
1. Ground the reader.
I have trouble with this. Give enough setting detail to get your reader in the scene, but don’t bore them into skimming or worse, closing the book. The answer is not necessarily more details, but the right ones.
Take Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “and there in that pleasant corner of the world they plied their well-ordered business of living, and they heeded less and less the world outside where dark things moved.”
Another image is from Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth: “No one remembers where the paths go. Some say they are there as escape routes, others say they are there so that we can travel deep into the Forest for wood. We only know that one points to the rising sun and the other to the setting sun.”
She doesn’t describe the paths here (though she does in other places), but you get the feelings of hopelessness and despair that this narrator associates with these paths.
2. Set the tone.
“He stood now among the opening flowers and the new leaves, looking at a dead man, hanging by his neck from the limb of a tree in the park, on Indian Hill, overlooking the harbor.”
The narrator from above wouldn’t go on to describe the victim’s clothing as ‘retro’ or ‘so last season’. And he’s probably not going to describe the bruises on the man’s neck as ‘pressure points of passion’ or ‘the color of a blood moon rising through a mist of fog’.
Authors present a tone in the beginning of their book and need to keep it throughout. When a writer fails to do this, readers say “That’s not what he would say/do.” Word choice is key to keeping that tone.
3. Narrative distance.
This is similar to tone, but emotional distance can change throughout a book. Cassandra Clare has six books out right now. My example comes from City of Fallen Angels because someone borrowed my City of Bones. Here’s the quote: “A shining blade split the night, slashing down inches from Clary’s face, severing the dog’s head from its body.” I love that phrase ‘split the night’. Clary is about to die, surrounded by darkness, and an angel blade comes to save her. The blade of light literally cuts the night away from her.
If you do it right, the words can put your reader with you every moment of your emotional scenes. You can also change from distant to close over the course of a scene to increase the impact.
4. Unique characters.
“A true conjure woman: satin black, biscuit cream, red as Georgia clay: depending on which of us takes a mind to her.”
Don’t those words sing? This woman is a mix of myth and reality. She’s anything and everything. The adjectives Naylor uses don’t just speak to the color of Sapphira’s skin, but everything she is. Smooth as satin, fluffy and soft like batter, or hard and slick like clay.
5. Narrator’s voice.
My final point ties everything else together. Voice affects every part of our writing. Our author’s voice colors all of our works, but the individual narrator’s voice can be distinct as well. This is especially important in works that have multiple POVs. The example that jumped to my mind was William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. “Then the dark began to go in smooth, bright shapes, like it always does, even when Caddy says that I have been asleep.”
“I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.”
“I'm bad and I'm going to hell, and I don't care. I'd rather be in hell than anywhere where you are.”
Each quote was from someone different in gender, education, emotional state. And you get that from the words they use.
The examples I’ve included here are not necessarily the best, but what I had on my bookshelf. In fact, I’m sure there are better ones, but the points are the same. More words may not help, but the right words will paint a picture, open a soul, and take your readers to the heart of your story.
What are some examples of word choice that have stuck with you after you’ve read a book?