Damn. Already my word choice is screwing me over.
Just like it screws over others.
Today I’m going to show you how easily really bad word choice can break the drama of the moment. I’m going to demonstrate this with an example based off a piece of work (which will not be named) containing the same maddening literary gaffe.
Take this riveting scene:
The stage is set for the heart-clenching rivalry between good and evil to explode. Many have been lost, and the casualties, not so casual to their friends, families, and lovers, are predicted to rise drastically in numbers. The hero is facing the villain, who has the hero’s dame of choice secure against him with a knife pressed to her neck. One wrong move and a love like no other will be lost, unleashing a sorrow of epic proportions.
“She’s dead now, Jack!” Noir shrieks, voice rising with the hysteria involved with finally besting your mortal enemy.
“No!” Jack pleads, throwing down his broadsword and lurching forward.
He trips over an unseen corpse and falls onto the ground. The dirt is muddy with blood. A psychotic laughter builds in Noir’s body as he pushes the knife closer, stumbling further away from Jack and taking Carol with him. Her face contorts with pain.
“Please!” Jack calls, voice gruff with terror.
Noir’s eyes narrow into slits.
“Pleading won’t save you this time,” he seethes.
In one quick motion, he jerks his arm and the knife hisses over Carol’s white neck. She tries to scream but it comes out like infant gurgles, and her clenching fingers grow steadily limp. And then she is gone.
Carol slips out of Noir’s grip, a dead weight.
Noir watches her fall. He let’s out his laugh as her head bounces against the ground. It is the deranged, demented laugh that accompanies horrific, impossible accomplishment. He looks at Jack, elated and disgusted by the blood on his hands, and sees his enemy staring shell-shocked at the body of his lover. He watches the expression transform before his eyes.
Jack’s face is paper white. His lips are bloodless even as they spread open to show teeth. His brows are heavy and slanted over his mad eyes and a feral growl is growing in his throat. His glare lifts to lock with Noir’s. He can hardly form words, but he tries.
“You…killed her,” he grits out grumpily.
Grumpy? Really? You’re going to describe him as grumpy?
My god, woman, what were you thinking? Do you know what I picture when I think of grumpy?
This is what you want:
This is what you gave me.
Anybody can see that that word is extremely bad in that place, which leads me to believe that when writers make this kind of mistake, they don’t do it on purpose. Usually. And sure, I’m picky about word choice, (I may or may not have had ten minute long discussions over a single word with critique partners,) but certain things, everybody catches.
So here’s how I avoid this mistake. It’s incredibly easy.
- Instinct: After writing, when you’re reading your stuff over, if there’s a word that doesn’t feel good where it is, replace it immediately. You’re probably right. Better to do it right away than after the fifth reading and much frustration.
- Thesaurus: Because we can’t all have the honour of coining some 1700 words like Shakespeare had, we use those available. Which is more than enough, seeing as it’s practically impossible to count the number of words there are in the English language. The word ecstasy is stronger than the word happiness, but they both define one type of emotion. Choose the one that suits the situation best.
- Dictionary: If you find a word you think will fit but you’re not quite sure if the meaning is right, for Christ’s sake use a dictionary. It’s what it’s there for. It’s better to look it up to know for sure than having it clarified by a pansy little know-it-all who will Tweet it to everybody once your book is published.
- Critique Partner: Or anybody who reads. Find a fresh eye to look over something you’ve read a million times. Sometimes these mistakes just happen and you don’t notice because you’ve half-memorized the passage to the point where you’re no longer really reading it.
Obviously, I exaggerated with my example. I’ll always exaggerate when I use Carol, Jack, and Noir. And obviously, not many people have the time to comb through their manuscript looking for exactly the right word in exactly the right place. It’s really just the big mistakes that grate on people’s nerves and throw out the flow.
All I’m asking is for you not to trivialize dire situations with stupid word choices.
And, of course, to avoid Purple Prose :).
And now for my requisite Challenge!
Find the bad word choices and replace them with good ones. It’d be interesting if you could justify why yours is better.
The woman bounded off the train, umbrella in hand. She flexed her fingers around the handle of her luggage for a firmer grip. The umbrella unfurled at the click of a button as she left the station and she set off down the street, accelerating to be out of the weather. Avoiding the soiled Parisian puddles, she made her way quickly to her apartment, clutching her purse close. She cursed the weatherman for convincing her that suede shoes and a sundress would be a felicitous outfit for the day. She could feel her shoes kicking up dry mud and could imagine the stains on the white cotton.
She tumbled up her apartment stairs, fumbled briefly with her keys, and shoved open the door. With a sigh of relief she entered the dry foyer of her building. Shaking the water out of her umbrella, she closed it, and it seemed to be the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard. She leaned it into the entrance corner and reviewed the ruined hem of her yellow sundress. Pushing hair out of her eyes with a groan, she turned around—
And collided head-on with the last person she wanted to see.
Do it on your own first, and then compare it with my edits, here:
The woman stepped [“bounded” is undignified and reminds me of rabbits; not appropriate for the tone] off the train, umbrella in hand. She flexed her fingers around the handle of her luggage for a firmer grip. The umbrella unfurled at the click of a button as she left the station and she set off down the street, hurrying [“accelerating” sounds too analytical] to be out of the weather. Avoiding the dirty [“soiled” implies they were once clean] Parisian puddles, she made her way quickly to her apartment, clutching her purse close. She cursed the weatherman for convincing her that suede shoes and a sundress would be a fitting [“felicitous” = too purple] outfit for the day. She could feel her heels [very picky point; “shoes” was used in the previous sentence] kicking up watery [how can mud be dry?] mud and could imagine the stains on the white cotton.
She tripped [“tumbled” implies falling, and she can’t fall up her stairs; also “tumbled” rhymes with “fumbled”] up her apartment stairs, fumbled briefly with her keys, and shoved open the door. With a sigh of relief she entered the dry foyer of her building. Shaking the water out of her umbrella, she closed it, and it seemed to be the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard. She leaned it into the entrance corner and scrutinized [“reviewed” sounds like she’s talking about a document] the ruined hem of her white [continuity; her dress is white, not yellow] sundress. Pushing hair out of her eyes with a groan, she turned around—
And collided head-on with the last person she wanted to see.
Feel free to use this as a prompt, and continue the story.
Also, here’s another prompt from the lovely Sarah Maas that I didn’t end up using because I suck.
“A unicorn, a dragon, and a monkey are all sitting by a forest pool, talking about a matter of grave importance.”
Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She just graduated high school and is on her way to university where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here.