When you think about it, all writing comes down to word choice. Yes, there’s all of that big picture stuff like characterisation, plot, and setting – but what the reader is able to deduct about these things is a product of the cumulative knowledge that comes from reading several sentences, which are made up of many, many words.
So. If words are our building blocks, we have to ask ourselves: How do we use them to the greatest effect?
The primary aim of a novel is to elicit an emotion in the reader. One of the ways we can keep readers turning the pages, then, is to make the emotion as clear as possible. And one of the best ways to do that? Through the details and words we choose.
So, let’s say, that we have a protagonist who is Angry in Scene A. This character is walking down a city street, maybe, after a fight with the most important person in their world (whoever that may be). How does the character take notice of their surroundings?
The character’s angry, so everything they notice right now is probably going to irritate them. If this character were me, I’d be taking special note of annoying people yelling ridiculously inappropriate things into their phones (What?! Carrie has an STD. OMFG!). I might notice that barely anyone is giving money to the homeless guy on the corner of the street (us people, so generous, hey). Someone might accidentally stub their cigarette out on my arm. It’s so wonderful to feel as if you’re an ashtray.
All of these details/things that are happening will paint the world as an ugly, uninviting place at this particular moment (if a character was happy, in the same setting you could focus on the way the city is bursting with life, colour, perhaps some groovy – yes, I did just use that word — music).
But, how do you go beyond just picking the right details? How do you manipulate your actual word choice to reflect and accentuate the emotional lens of your character? If you’re writing in third person, it’s especially important to be able to use word choice to tell your reader about characters’ emotional states. After all, your narrator can’t just come out and say, “I’m so angry, right now” (although this would probably be lazy writing in first person, anyway).
One of the best ways to do it is to focus in on the verbs and adjectives that you’re using. In the scene I mentioned earlier, think about the way the character would view the people around them on the street. Would they be “walking” or “strolling” or “shoving” ? I vote for shoving. Would the people on the mobile phones be “speaking” “talking” “yammering” or “yapping”. I think the latter two are better choices.
Focusing on your adjectives can be really helpful as well. Let’s examine the possible ways we could describe, say, the music floating out of a store. We could use “bad” or we could use “average” or “typical” or “stupid” or “terrible”. Most of those options are okay – “bad” “average” and “typical” don’t have much emotional resonance, though – it just depends on the voice of the character. Still, you don’t want to be describing this music as “soft” or “delicate” or “beautiful”, because that would be counterproductive to trying to convey the character’s angriness.
These are fairly simple things, yet you’d be amazed the number of times I notice point of view characters using words that seem to imply they’re super happy in extremely sad scenes (both in my writing and in others’) and vice a versa. It’s such an easy thing to slip-up on. Looking over word choice, and strengthening where possible, can really notch up the emotional intensity of a manuscript. It can be the difference between flat emotion, and emotion that leaps off the page.
So, how do you guys choose your words?
Vahini Naidoo is a YA author and University student from Sydney Australia. Her currently untitled debut novel, en edgy psychological thriller, is scheduled for release from Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can visit Vahini over on her blog.