Monday, May 14, 2007

Style, Part Three: Word Choice and Linguistic Complexity

Word Choice:

Words are the dirt of your story, the grass, the twigs and branches, the air and the heavens above. Words are the elemental necessity of your story, and the choices you make dictate the lay of the land. Word choice takes place in every phrase and sentence. There a dozen words to describe even the rarest of events, feelings, or subjects. Which words should we choose? Which words will forward our story and give the reader the most accurate information? Which words will “set the twilight reeling?” (Lou Reed)

Arriving at the right words is probably the most essential struggle that any writer can have. How often have you thought, “I know what happens, right through until the end. I just can't frame it in words.” We all have had that feeling. The translation from thought to word can sometimes be a rough and inexact thing. We, as writers, however, have signed on to make that conversion take place. It's a dirty job...

We talked about tone in one of the previous articles, and your word choice is certainly going to dictate the tone of your story. Insofar as a story can have a texture, the words provide it. I won't try to enumerate the words that can lead to particular tones and colors here, but I want you to start thinking about how certain words make you feel. “Tone” words are not simply adjectives and adverbs, of course. Often, we'll want to steer clear of throwing too many modifiers at our nouns and verbs—this tactic can seem amateurish to editors, not to mention clogging up your story's flow. No, it's often the verb you use that'll start your reader's mind turning. There's a big difference between walking and trudging. There's a big difference between giggling and gibbering.

Even nouns, the stoic role-players of our linguistic scheme, can play a part. Often, this has to do with specificity. Can you name your objects and subjects with a pin-point laser, or are they vague generalities? After all, it makes a difference when your character refers to a fossilized heap of bones as an Australopithecus Afarensis. It reveals a lot about a character when they think in this way. On the other hand, if your character doesn't know a distributer cap from a manhole cover, he'll see a mystifying array of wires and hoses underneath a car's hood. You choose the words, and that choice tells the reader a great deal. The way a character sees things, they way she understands them—that's storytelling gold, because you can give the reader this information without overt “telling”.


Not-so-good: Jim didn't understand cars. He had always felt bad about it, but everything that took place under the hood was a mystery to him. He'd only agreed to look at Clarissa's car because he was do damned infatuated with her.

Better: Jim peered at the dark crevice between the hood and the car's grill. He'd already pulled hard at the damned thing, but it wouldn't come up. There had to be a catch. He put his hand in there and felt around, only to pull it back with a mashed fingernail. He shook the injured hand and swore, sotto voce. “May as well be Scylla and Charybdis, for all I can get through.”

“How are you doing?” Clarissa asked from the door.

“Fine, fine. Just getting started.” He smiled at her, but the sweat rolled down the center of his back.

She squinted at him, then nodded. “Let me know if you need a glass of tea.”

Jim watched her go. She had a backside that would make Aphrodite weep with envy. Failure was not an option.

So, then, we see that the verbs we use indicate the manner in which actions are taken. The closer those actions are to the intent you have, the better. With nouns, we see that specificity and generality are great tools to indicate the knowledge base of the character, their background, and their thought process. Of course, we will also be using modifiers—adjectives and adverbs. If necessary, you can indicate that your noun is gargantuan, or your verb takes place horribly. Just make sure you're not loading sentences so full of modifiers that that can't get out of their own way. We don't want huge, dark, bellowing, insane, bloody, horrific bunny rabbits, do we? Well, maybe we do, but we should find better ways than a huge stack of adjectives to get the point across.

There are some times when a reader or editor will mark your story up with “word choice issues”. In these cases, there are several things that may be happening. The first one is simply misuse of a word. Maybe you always thought a word meant something that it really doesn't. This isn't anything to be upset about. We all carry around a certain amount of misinformation. Figure out what word you should have been using, and what the correct application of the original word is, and you won't make that mistake again.

In other circumstances, you'll use a word that is perfectly serviceable in the sentence, but could be replaced by a better choice. In this case, there are probably several choices out there for you, and some of them may be “more perfect” than the one you chose. In this case, it's usually an issue of “shadings of meaning”. Every word has an invisible freight of assumptions and associations attached to it. When the word occurs, it will stir up these meanings like a fish skimming the sandy bottom of a pond. If some of the associations that are stirred up with your word choice work counter to your overall intent, you'll want to search for a more, ahem, simpatico word.

In some cases, your word choice will have to be monitored, so that it matches the story's setting. Historical tales, fantasy stories, and other stories that do not take place in the same time and place as the “normal world” will require special attention. If you're writing a story about stone age man being pursued by fire-breathing lizards on the plains of some imaginary planet, you won't want to use linguistic forms and references from modern pop cultures. Having Barg, hunter of the Zuul tribe get “really bummed out” and need some “alone time” will make everyone laugh at your story. This is what's called anachronistic language. It's language that is “out of time” with the rest of your story. Be careful of it. It's surprisingly easy to slip and start writing modern ideas and terms into your historical/fantasy tale. Of course, there are some elements that you can choose to leave in, so that modern readers will identify with the characters, but be careful. Like any other rule, break it only when you know what you're doing.

Finally, particular people will come up with a personal lexicon of words that they have a special relationship with. These words either become favorites or “pet peeves”. In the case of the former, you'll notice that most people have stock phrases or words that they use more frequently than the average. Your boss at work might say, “Outstanding” at least once per day. Your friend from fifth grade may describe himself doing things “like a little monster” all the time. These are the favorites, the modes of speech you can internalize and use to model a character on at a later date. This stuff is gold. If you use words that people have in their “favorites” list, you'll generally notice that they identify with your story a bit better than they would otherwise. If, on the other hand, you hit their pet peeves, you'll have the opposite reaction. This can be something as prosaic as naming a character after someone's hated ex-spouse and convoluted as using a word they associate with their favorite cat, who is long dead and often mourned. You never know. It's hard to plan for this instance, but you can use what you learn from people's reactions. If you're writing to a particular audience, you may wish to internalize their vocabulary, so that you can insert words they'll have positive associations with into your story.

Linguistic Complexity

Here, yet again, we're treading quite closely upon the “tone” issue. We'll go a bit deeper into a specific aspect of it, however, and talk about the appropriate level of complexity to introduce into your story. We'll want to match our linguistic complexity to our intended audience, of course. It's not productive to reference Shakespeare and Kierkegaard in a book designed for beginning readers. They won't get it. On the other hand, we don't want to make a story we're writing for teens so simple that we're insulting their intelligence.

The English language is gigantic in regard to its total vocabulary. None of us can know every word in circulation, or even a large fraction of them. We can, however, call upon words that others may have never seen. We each walk our own path, after all, and we may have encountered and assimilated words that others have never even heard or read. That's fine, but we don't want to boggle the reader's mind at the critical juncture of our climatic scene. A good rule of thumb is this: if you think that the word may be wholly unfamiliar to your readers, introduce it in context. That is to say, introduce it in such a way as to help the reader understand what you mean. It's not necessary to actually define the word within the text of your story, but it should be placed cheek-by-jowl with other, more familiar words. The point of your passage should be manifest, even without perfect understanding of the obscure word or phrase.

In addition to all the generally-used words in English, there are innumerable subsets of language that serve one technical community or another. This is often referred to as “jargon”. These words will be utterly familiar to a small group of people who need them, but otherwise mysterious. Just because you're an astrophysicist, that doesn't mean that we all are. Be careful of using your specialized terminology in a story, unless you're willing to introduce it and help us understand. If you're going that far, however, the term had better be important to the tale at hand.

It's more than words that make your language complicated. Sentence structure also plays a part. I've kicked this horse around on multiple occasions already in this series, so I'll simply say that the more compound, complex sentences you feature in your story, the more difficult it will be to read. If your readers are all very high-functioning, you'll have no trouble...unless they're tired or distracted or just not in the mood for a ceaselessly convoluted string of predicates and sub-predicates. Most good writing features a mix of simple declaratives and more complex sentences. This allows the “beat” of your narrative to ebb and flow, like a good jazz song. It's always best when the flow of prose allows for the build-up and release of tension. The mixture of short and long sentences allows for that essential ebb and flow. I recommend it.

Now we come to another issue. Thus far in this segment, we've been talking about the narrative of the story. When we face dialog, we're up against a whole different issue. How a character talks is one of your best indicators of her mental state, her background, and her comprehension of the world around her. You needn't say a character is a slack-jawed yokel. If the character speaks, the truth can be betrayed in a few lines of dialog. And again, if your character is a doctoral candidate in philosophy, her way of speaking can be equally telling. This, perhaps, is one of the secrets of good writing. To be able to “tell” the reader without ever writing a line of exposition on the subject. In this way, our linguistic complexity choices can make or break a story.

In Summation:

1)Word choice is an essential part of your style and tone. Pay close attention to the “invisible payload” of your words. This emotional payload can either create a wonderfully enveloping tone or break the reader completely out of the flow. Have your proofreaders mark the words that made them stop “seeing” the story, and start reading again. It's those words you'll have to work on most closely.

2)Appropriate word choice can reveal things about a character's state of mind that would take you a paragraph of exposition. Inserting these “keystone” words is the essential element of “showing”, rather than “telling”. It's always better to throw one perfect word at a problem than a hundred sub-par words.

3)When fretting over an uncommon word, make sure that your whole point is not reliant on the reader's comprehension of that word. Give some contextual information to help him along, and he may actually learn something.

4)Try to use a level of linguistic complexity that is appropriate to your audience, but don't “dumb down” too much. Remember that even pre-teens have big vocabularies, and can understand much of what an adult can. Still, even in adult-biased stories, there's no need to seek out the most baroque sentence structures. Simplicity brings clarity and quickness to your prose. A “rhythm” can often keep readers from looking away, and that rhythm requires that the language ebb and flow.

5)By looking carefully at the language we use during dialog, we can build elements of character without a word of exposition, again steering us toward economical, involving prose. The linguistic construction of a character's dialog will reveal him in a way that readers will understand almost intuitively.

Next time: Intensity

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