Oct 20, 2011

Guest post - Maximizing Word Choice

Writer Sarah Belliston joins me today in a guest post about word choice. She received her BA in English from Brigham Young University. She lives in Kansas City with her husband, daughter, mother, and one pug in a never-big-enough apartment. Sarah's at the beginning of the road to publication with her manuscript Conduit, which she blogs about here.

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.”
You can probably guess he is describing the Hobbits and the Shire. They ‘plied’ their ‘business’ of living and the outside world was where ‘dark things moved’. Tolkien is not a short-winded author, but his words do their job of bringing you into the Hobbit’s laissez-faire lifestyle and land.
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.”
This is from the first paragraph of Robert Parker’s High Profile. From this sentence you can probably guess his main character is a detective and will solve this murder. But you also know the main character (MC) is going to do it in an objective way, no personal involvement, taking in all the details both good and bad. He talks about the flowers and the dead man with the same plain words.
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.
The words we use can add depth to a character that otherwise seems two-dimensional. Gloria Naylor has a great book called Mama Day. It starts off with a prologue of the legend of Sapphira Wade.
“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?


Lisa L. Regan said...

What a fabulous post! Great stuff and very helpful to me. I'm almost ready to embark on my 2nd draft and this is all great advice (and great examples) to keep in mind while I work! Thanks!

Cortney said...

It's always helpful to me to turn to other great novels for help on compactness and word choice. I've heard it said to do what other writers do, only do it in your own way. Or something like that. Take what works and use it! Great post!

Sarah B said...

Glad my thoughts came at the right time Lisa!

And you are so right Cortney, always go to the masters for advice.

Sarah Pearson said...

This was really useful. I'm seeing with my writing that, although my characters start with different voices, I sometimes get them mixed up!

Sommer Leigh said...

I love the examples picked out here. This is a wonderful post on word choice!

Carrie Butler said...

Great post, ladies! Very helpful. :)

Lynda R Young said...

Great post with fantastic examples. I do love the rhythms of Tolkien's writing.

Jolene Perry said...

I have my few authors whose voices I ADORE.
Halse Anderson, Green, Noel . . .