Saturday, 18 July 2015

Does Poor Word Choice Kill a Story?


How often do you think about how your sentences are structured? How much thought do you put into using the right words? How effective do you want those words to be?
Often, poor word choice – instead of helping support the story you are trying to tell – can weaken the story and lead to ‘telling’. In some cases it can kill a story dead.
So what is considered poor word choice?
Word choice refers to the right words for the right meaning and the right effect, and the example below uses the wrong words and incorrect sentence structure, so it doesn’t do a great job of conveying much:
‘John ran to the end of the road, saw the crowd, who were moving towards the main building with everyone inside, so he grabbed his gun...’
By using the right word choice, however, the sentences become stronger, the intended meaning has relevance and the overall story will be that little bit stronger, for instance:
‘John ran to the end of the road and saw the angry, bloodied crowd moving towards the main building. He grabbed his gun, knew innocent people were trapped inside. Somehow he had to distract the deadly horde...’
This version is much stronger – it used stronger, descriptive words to convey meaning, but also the words are structured properly within the sentence. The right word choice can lift the story from the page so that the reader reacts to it and it stimulates their imagination.
Poor word choice, on the other hand, doesn’t stimulate the reader, so any reaction to the narrative is lost.
It’s important the reader understands the meaning you are trying to convey, otherwise the whole effect could fall flat, or you could end up conveying the wrong thing entirely, just by poor word choice.
One way to avoid that is to ensure the reader gets the right amount of information and detail so that they can picture the story in their mind. You don’t have to overcomplicate sentences and make them flowery, but they need to be clear and unambiguous and they need to get the point across.
Here’s another example of poor word choice. In the example below, it describes a woman who is depressed and unhappy and how she deals with her feelings:
‘She had wanted to retreat into what she understood most, the kind that eased her mind and soothed her, the kind that was built around the silence she always felt’.
You can see that the word choices are uninspiring and bland and do nothing to evoke the scene. So many writers still write like this, but this really isn’t fiction writing. It’s lazy writing.
The revised version is better:
‘Sometimes she had wanted to retreat into the comfort she understood, the kind that eased her troubled mind and soothed her worries, the wondrous kind built around the soliloquy of silence’.
Better word choice makes quite a difference. The reader’s mind can jump into the scene and they will automatically paint their own picture and include their own details – this is the reader’s imagination at work. Write the right words and the reader will do the rest for you.
Words such as ‘soothed’, ‘wondrous’ and ‘soliloquy’ in this scene stimulate the reader; they provoke a reaction, whereas before, the unedited version didn’t really incite much.
This is another example:
‘The ground beneath Xavier’s feet vibrated. The air smelled burnt and despite the darkness, the sky around them flashed like a lightning storm’.
Again, the choice of words doesn’t do a lot for the narrative, but in the revised version, certain catalyst words change the overall feel of it, so that the reader gets more information, for example:
‘The ground beneath Xavier’s feet vibrated in constant upheaval. The air grew thick with a strange burnt smell. Despite the murky darkness, the sky around them flashed with incessant spite like a demonic lightning storm’.
This version gives the reader more information, the word choice is better; it provokes a reaction and helps the reader imagine the scene.
Some writers pour over their sentences with methodical detail. Others just write and hope for the best. Authors like Hemingway and James Joyce often agonised over the choice of words. They completely understood how important the right words were in fiction and the difference they made to the meaning, understanding and texture of a story.
The right word choice:

  • Gets the point across
  • Gives meaning
  • Strengthens scenes
  • Provides the right detail for the reader, stimulates their imagination
  • Adds extra layers to the scene

The wrong word choice may not kill a story completely, but it really doesn’t help it either. Small details are important. Extra detail is important. The right words make a difference.
The wrong words don’t.

Next week: How to avoid the novel slump

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