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Word Choice

From Shifti
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Author: Fish


After mastering the basics of nailing words together with the proper punctuation, it's time to select your lumber-that is, the vocabulary you will use. Vocabulary and word use are what make an author distinct.

I am not going to tell you which words to use. I do not have a handy list of five-syllable words you can throw into a story to impress the reader with your intelligence. I'm not even suggesting that you go out of your way to put cool words into your story. However, I will tell you that your words matter. The words you use in your story affect everything about it: pace, flow, mood, tone, and everything else.

If you do not already have one, I suggest you invest in a dictionary. It needn't be The Oxford English Unabridged Dictionary, but you could keep a Webster's handy for looking up words and how they're used. I guess you could say it's a rule of thumb in fiction writing. If you're going to use a word, use it correctly. Look it up if you're not sure. Find out what it means and how it is used.

There is a word based on a famous character from a play called The Rivals. The character was Mrs. Malaprop, and she frequently used big words she didn't entirely understand. The words she chose were similar to the correct word, but gave her sentences an unfortunate and unintended meaning. Mrs. Malaprop was part of the comic relief because of this behavior, and the word this character inspired was malapropism. It is easy to confuse similar words, especially if they are unfamiliar, so I say again, look it up in the dictionary if you're at all uncertain. I do.

Along with that advice, there is a correlating rule of thumb. Sometimes in a story, you wish to refer to a technical whatsitz but you're not sure what its real name is. Suppose your fantasy barbarian hero is engaged in a desperate battle against impossible odds against hordes of slavering goblins (okay, not goblins, how about software engineers?) and at the climactic moment...

Hrongnar whirled and parried, ducking under a dangerous thrust from a deadly protractor, and inched his way toward the battlements. An alphageek in ominous black rayon loomed up before him with an evil expression, blocking his retreat. With a lunge, Hrongnar hit the geek in the face with the handgrip protector thing on his sword handle, you know, that curvy bit that goes out and protects your hands, or at least one hand anyway, the hand that's holding the sword, and then he grabbed a rope...

Okay, so maybe that's not the best example. I got a bit silly. Still, knowing that the curvy bit is called a knucklebow would save a lot of words and confusion. If my example were more serious, perhaps it would have made a difference. I hope this rule of thumb doesn't come as a surprise: if you're going to include a specific technical item in your story, call it by its name.

That rule is sometimes at odds with the next rule of thumb. The reader can't be forgotten. It is not wise to write a story about detailed, complex technical ideas without at least grounding the reader in terminology or providing context for your term. I don't know how many people know what a knucklebow is, so I'll provide the reader a bit of context:

With a lunge, Hrongnar punched the geek in the face with the knucklebow of his sword, then grabbed a rope...

Here I make it clear that it's part of a sword associated with a punching action. The reader can now make an intelligent guess.

I'm not suggesting that you should dumb down your language to the level of your stupidest reader-unless, of course, you plan to write children's books. If knowing the meaning of an uncommon word is essential to the story, introduce it in a context that helps the reader.

This is all mostly common sense, really.

The last two bits of advice I have about words, before I get into more specific concepts of tone and pace, are the most important, so I saved them for just this very moment. The first is use the right word. Don't say sort of angry, say exasperated or frustrated. Don't say a little bit fat, say stout or bulky or pudgy. There is nearly always a word that expresses precisely what you mean, even if you don't think of it at the time. This is where owning a thesaurus comes in handy. A writer could look up a word like fat and see a dozen useful alternatives. Know your alternatives and use the one that fits best.

The most important advice I can give is to write at a vocabulary level that comes naturally to you. If you feel your vocabulary is too limited, avail yourself of a thesaurus or dictionary and teach yourself how to use new words. However, don't strain yourself by using five-syllable jaw-cracking words five times in a sentence just because the dictionary's handy.

Me? I keep a dictionary by my bed, a thesaurus on the shelf, and for fun I do crossword puzzles. All three sharpen the vocabulary.

How Words Affect the Tone

Different authors have different vocabularies. Words that come naturally to one writer are not always the same as those that occur to another. How you use words as a writer will determine what kind of style you have.

I think it is important to realize that different word choices are better for different stories. Even your sentence structure makes a difference how your writing is perceived. Consider the following two paragraphs about languor:

He did not still feel weak, he was merely luxuriating in that supremely gutful lassitude of convalescence in which time, hurry, doing, did not exist, the accumulating seconds and minutes and hours to which in its well state the body is slave both waking and sleeping, now reversed and time now the lip-server and mendicant to the body's pleasure instead of the body's thrall to time's headlong course.

Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go out into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurito. He would go to sleep while he waited.

I am no critic and I will not attempt to dissect the writings of Faulkner and Hemingway, whose passages these are. They are distinctly different, as you can easily see. One is a long sentence, with twisting subclauses and a flowing, hypnotic feel; the other is in short and rapid bursts of simple sentences.

Also compare these passages:

The Noble Counselors of Uruk arose and delivered their advice to Gilgamesh: "You are young, Gilgamesh, your heart carries you off- you do not know you what you are talking about! . . . Humbaba's roar is a Flood, his mouth is a Fire, his breath Death! He can hear any rustling in his forest a hundred leagues away! Who would go down into his forest? Who among even the Igigi gods can confront him? . . . "

Dallben shook his head. "No man knows his name, nor has any man seen his face. He wears an antlered mask, and for this reason he is called the Horned King. His purposes I do not know. I suspect the hand of Arawn, but in what manner I cannot tell."

'But last night I told you of Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord. The rumours that you have heard are true: he has indeed arisen again and left his hold in Mirkwood and returned to his ancient fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor. That name even you hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the border of old stories. Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.'

In each passage one character warns another, describing the nature of the supernaturally evil villain. The first passage, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, uses very simple sentences: you will note each one begins with the noun, the verb follows immediately after. The imagery is unsubtle and the metaphors exaggerated. From the choice of words there is a clear difference in the story's approach. Its lack of sophistication is not surprising, considering it is the oldest narrative yet known to literature.

The second passage is from Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. It is much more modern, so its sentences are sometimes written with the direct object leading (instead of the subject) and there are subordinate clauses that link thoughts together. It is clearly more sophisticated in its structure, even if the words are not more complex.

The last is Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings and shows a similar passage with a much more sophisticated use of language, subclauses and varied structure. The subject and the verb are once separated by the entire length of the sentence, and the sentences are often quite convoluted. The choice of words is slightly elevated (fastness, respite) but overall it is the structure that sets the tone.