Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Power of Words


It’s easy to write a novel, and just as easy to write short stories, anyone can do it, can’t they?

Well, not quite.  Anyone can write a novel or churn out short stories, but not all writers can actually write well, so whether they are any good is down to the talent and capability of the writer.  Those who think that it’s an easy process need a stark reality check, because writing fiction is an often difficult, problem-filled, labour intensive job, and they don’t always appreciate how complex writing can be.

In reality, the love of the written word is very much ingrained in those who want to write.  There also has to be a modicum of flair and ability to begin with.  For some, writing has been in their blood since childhood.  This means that not everyone can simply wake up one day and decide to be a writer.  It takes talent, dedication and a lot of hard work.

And writing isn’t just about churning out as many words as possible and making it all kind of make sense either.  It’s about understanding the power of words.  It’s about using the right words at the right time to give the right impact. 

Words have the ability evoke our emotions; influence our mood and thoughts, as well as the ability to entertain us. 

Using the right words makes the narrative stand out; it enriches the writing beyond expectation.  How often do we sit back and look at the power of the words we create?  How often do we amaze ourselves with what we have written? 

Every now and then we might read an amazing line in a book, or a phrase that sticks in our mind, or a snippet of dialogue or description that stops us in our tracks and makes us think.  That’s because the writer has given us ‘a touch of genius’, a phrase or line or description that perfectly captures something, all through the power of words. 

Everyone knows their incredible power – they can move us, hurt us, scare us or lighten us etc. And it’s not just ‘genius’ phrases or sentences that enrich the writing, it’s also the way we construct the narrative that helps influence the power of words.

For example, look at these two sentences:

Her eyes shuttered against a bright light.

Her eyes shuttered against a despicable light.

They are quite ordinary sentences.  But one sentence is very different to the other, and that is because one evokes a stronger feeling than the other.  ‘Bright light’ evokes more of a soothing, lighter feel, perhaps it’s the glare of the sun, but ‘despicable light’ is much darker, there is something dreadful or foreboding here. 

Also notice the choice of ‘a’ instead of ‘the’ in the sentences.  A light, rather than the light.  This is to separate a generalisation that ‘the’ suggests.  ‘A’ is more specific, and when coupled with the right adjective, it provides greater impact. 

That’s the power of words.

Good narrative is all down to a writer’s choice of words, it’s about choosing the right verbs and nouns and adjectives, it’s about understanding the meaning of the words and their construction order, and the emotions you want to convey with them.

There is a lot of confusion for writers about whether to substitute some ‘bland’ words for more evocative words within their descriptions.  Many writers see this as being overly pretentious to resort to the thesaurus, when the original word would suffice.  This can be a problem if the writer does it all the time, making the narrative ridiculously flowery by trying to use ever more descriptive words.  But again, it is about choice of words, in the right places, in the right scenes, at the right time.

There is nothing wrong with finding better words that help you describe something (just not too many of the type that leaves your readers scratching their heads and leafing through a dictionary to find out what you mean). A new word or two is enlightening, and using better words is what brings description to life, after all.

To illustrate how word choice makes such an important difference to the narrative, I’ve included the excerpt below, from one of my flash fiction pieces, Alone on the Hill:

‘Polonius blinked against the haze and dust, pulled his sagum around his shoulders.  A forest of crafted crosses stretched into the distance, scattered the light, but all he could see were scarlet ribbons wrapped around branchless cedars’.

A forest of crafted crosses… Scarlet ribbons wrapped around branchless cedars.  These sentences stand out for several reasons – images, symbolism and emotion, to mention just a few.  I could, however, have written something insipid, like:

‘Polonius blinked against the haze and dust, pulled his sagum around his shoulders.  A line of crosses stretched into the distance, scattered the light, but all he could see was blood dripping down the wood’.

While there is nothing wrong with this description, it doesn’t have the power that the original narrative does, it doesn’t evoke much, and that’s all down to word choice within the description, and the way it is constructed.

Remember, the right words at the right time, to give the right impact.
  • Think about the meaning or imagery/symbolism or emotion you want to convey.
  • Pick the right, evocative words - can you replace bland words with more evocative ones?
  • Does the construction have that little ‘touch of genius’?  Never be afraid to tinkering with word order.
  • Does your word order pack that descriptive punch?

Above all, never underestimate the power of words.  They are a lot more powerful than you realise.

 
Next week: Reasons why we write.

2 comments:

  1. I agree with your message but I think you're leaving out a few important points to descriptive writing:

    1) First, using figurative language is all about saying more than one thing in fewer words. It's meant to facilitate brevity. The point is to provoke imagery and elicit an emotional response from the reader in a matter of a couple words. It forces readers to participate in the story by visualizing the imagery and drawing meaning out of the unlikely comparison made with the metaphor.

    2) I agree that writers need to take your pointers into consideration when choosing the "right" words. But I also think that a writer shouldn't sacrifice voice or style for the sake of sounding "literary."

    Some writers exercise brevity in sentence structure and word choice. That is their individual writing style. Some writers write flash fiction and have to choose their words with exceptional care because of their limited word count.
    Either way, authorial style shouldn't be sacrificed simply to make a bland passage sound better. There could be a reason behind making the passages seem so beige in color. It could symbolize or reinforce a theme in the story. It could represent characterization, it could be a stylistic technique used to downplay the writing in order to show irony or some other element.

    And as far as characterization goes: characters should determine word choice if the narrative is character-driven. If so, writers should then use words appropriate for that character's belief/vocabulary level (which may force writers to use cliched phrases or bland word choice--even obscenities--at times).

    A pragmatic, less poetic character might not describe the blood on the trees as "scarlet ribbons." If the narrative is selectively written to include the character's opinion, then he might simply describe it as "blood stained" because his word choice reflects his personality. Writers have to keep that in mind if they're writing character-driven narration.

    3) As for flowery prose: I think that an overabundance of adverbs and adjectives adds to the purple of the prose and is what makes it flowery. Poor word choice doesn't make it flowery, it just makes it amateur writing that's jarring to read for those who understand the word better than the author.

    It's better to choose one good verb rather than to spruce up a weaker verb with an adverb. Example: "soft rain" would be better replaced by a strong verb that says both like: "drizzle."

    And avoiding unnecessary and empty adverbs/adjectives is also important. The only reason a writer should include adverbs/adjectives at all is to characterize that verb/noun in a way that one strong verb couldn't.

    Example: "jet black" or "pitch black" are empty adjectives. "Pitch" and "jet" do not modify the color black. They don't suggest that the black is any different in color and are improper uses of adjectives. But to say "scarlet ribbon" is proper usage. "Scarlet" tells the reader that the "ribbon" is red when that ribbon could have been any color. In this case, it's a necessary adjective to further characterize that noun.

    Sorry to hijack your blog with an enormous post like this. I only meant to help improve the blog posting. I appreciate the effort you're putting into your blog to help beginning writers. Good luck with it and keep up the good work.

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    Replies
    1. You make some very valid, pertinent points, and I welcome constructive feedback, however I think you have missed the whole point of the article.

      It's about the power of words, how a writer can choose the right words, not HOW to write description.

      Your first point about figurative language misses the target: it’s not about saying things in fewer words; it’s about saying things with the right words. Brevity doesn’t come into it when we consider novel writing. The writer chooses how that description should be.

      Your second point says that writers shouldn’t sacrifice voice or style for the sake of sounding literary. Whilst I agree, I never said they shouldn’t, and I don’t think there is nothing wrong with being literary if this is the writer’s voice and style. Some of the best writers in the world are ‘literary’.

      You mention brevity again, and word choice. If that is the individual’s writing style, that’s great, and as a flash fiction writer (the example in the article is a flash fiction), I know all about the importance of making every word count, however authorial style shouldn’t be affected by making sentences better. Again, I think you have missed the point – I am not talking about making every sentence sound like a Jane Austen novel, but rather a writer apply common sense to the writing and pick out some of the sentences that could be made better. It’s that simple.

      And if writers want a ‘beige’ passage to symbolise the theme of the story, that’s great. That’s the writer’s individual style. I am merely saying that wherever possible, a writer should improve their writing. If they want to be bland and beige, that’s up to them. If they want to be colourful and vibrant, then there is more chance of impressing an editor. That’s just the way it is.

      Again I agree with your point on characterisation. There is nothing wrong with using clichéd phrases or obscenities in dialogue; it reflects real life. Again I have not argued against it, and once again you miss the point – it doesn’t matter whether the character is bolshy and bold or less poetic or pragmatic – the description is the ‘voice’ of the author, whilst the characters and characterisation are completely separate. The author narrates the scenes, whereas the characters don’t. Also, the description of ‘scarlet ribbons’ etc does not include the character’s opinion. It is strictly authorial narrative, even when it is character driven narrative, the character should never invade it. The result is clunky, trite and makes for bad writing.

      I agree with your third point, to a degree, but I am not talking about flowery prose in the article. But poor word choice makes bad writing, whether flowery or not. I’m advising writers to think clearly about word choices, to improve narrative, which includes less adjectives and adverbs and more nouns and verbs – you are merely repeating my advice, although I am not sure why. Also, I never said that ‘scarlet ribbons’ is proper usage. I included it because of the power of words within description. ‘Scarlet ribbons’ symbolised the blood of Christ streaming down the wooden cross. I am inviting the reader to visualise it, rather than sampling telling them that ‘blood streamed down the wood.’

      The examples are there to show how the right words can make the right impact.

      Unfortunately, because you are anonymous, I don’t know who you are, other than your IP address, so it’s a shame I cannot refer to you by name.

      As I said, I welcome readers getting involved with discussions, and offering their ideas. Writing is subjective after all.


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