Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Strong words, and blah ones

One quick thing before we start:

For those brave souls who are going to submit, let's stick to the usual 250-ish words, and your piece will go up the week of the 23rd after these nerdy posts are over and done with. I already have 2 in my inbox, so those that want in, get in while you can. After the series is over, I'm closing it down :)

A while back, I wrote a guest post for a site that no longer exists on the implied meanings of words.

I don’t really want to repeat what I’ve already said in that linked post, so let’s pretend you’re all interested enough to have clicked the link, and read it before returning here, and focus on moving on.

You don’t actually have to read it ;) It’s more that I’m trying to consolidate (potentially) relevant information, and someone in the industry recently posted about the same thing. Her annoyance of 'flowing hills' is like mine when an author uses 'bloated' to describe a sharp, pointed, metal knife.

The thing about choosing strong words, is that it overlaps with voice and description. How a character views the world is going to impact the words he/she uses, and the importance he/she puts on things.

This is precision. Instead of a vague word that could relate to any character, you're narrowing the field to one specific to your character.

Jay, who is an artist, is very quick to notice visual information, but is less quick to pick up on other sensory information. His frame of reference is going to gravitate towards art-related terminology, anatomy, light/shadow, etc. He is also arrogant, and entitled, so his focus is self-centered, and his actions self-serving. He can be very manipulative when it comes to getting what he wants.

We all know the usual ‘weak’ words to avoid, ones like ‘walk’ or ‘run’. Stride, skip, slink, skulk, saunter, these are all better words that give a much more visual description of how a person could cross a room, perhaps they even give you different ideas of emotional state, age, purpose, etc.

What does 'walk' give you? Not a whole heck of a lot.

I think visually (yes, you know this), so this might be easier for me to do naturally. I’m not really sure how to teach someone how to think visually, but I suppose a few things I try to keep in mind are:

What is the character’s emotional state? Physical state (hot/cold/hurt/tired)? Is their goal/desire in front of them/in the room, or elsewhere? If elsewhere, what, in the room, is the biggest influence on the character’s emotional/psychological state? How does the character see the people around him/her (enemies? friends? frenemies?) Does he/she care what they think of him/her? If the character was an animal, what would he/she be?

Does that last one sound weird? Perhaps, but I often use animal characteristics to draw from in terms of moment/behavior/etc. Animals we are familiar with can be very powerful ‘short-hand’ to imply many things about a character, their state of mind, their moral/ethical state, etc. You’ll see an example in a later post how I use a robin.

Now, vision is only one of the senses... so, strong words will hit the other senses as well, but be careful. Like, if you read that linked post, you would never think to use a ‘sound’ word to describe something ‘visual’, right? ...there is a correct answer here ;)

...and I often say, that any good vomit reference should make the reader a little sick to their stomach. 

Here’s a quick set of words, with similar meanings, progressing from weak to strong:

Hit, attack, assault.

So, why is assault stronger than attack?

Because ‘assault’ has the added meaning of ‘rape’, so it implies, not only a physical attack, but an emotional/psychological attack as well.

So, if you wanted to use a strong word to describe your character being bombarded, verbally, you would want to ask yourself, do I want the added implication bagged up in ‘assault’, or should I stick with ‘attack’? Well, that would probably depend on your character’s state of mind, and what the verbal bombardment was about.

Say, it was a woman who had just miscarried, and someone knocked on the door to survey her about abortion, or starving children dying in Africa, or giving money/support for babies born to alcoholic/drug addicted mothers... well, that might feel like an assault rather than an attack because of the personal/emotional aspect.

If, instead, your character is a middle-aged bachelor... you could stick with ‘attack’, or even downplay it further because there’s likely not a huge emotional connection between him and the subject matter, so rather than take it personally, he’s probably just shut the door and forget it even happened.

The thesaurus is your friend, just don’t blindly accept one of the suggested counterparts... check the dictionary function, pay attention to all of the meanings, not just the first one on the list. Words carry baggage, and even though we don’t routinely read the dictionary, because words have different meanings, we associate them with other contexts, and we bring that chain of knowledge with us when we read.

One misused word can have unintended repercussions.


  1. great tips. I love using my thesaurus especially because so many words are 'blah' like you stated:)

    1. ...and sometimes, there's a specific word you want, but it's on the tip of your tongue... so using a thesaurus to look up similar words can often help you locate it!

  2. Very true, although I'm guessing you're assuming 3rd-limited or 1st here? This doesn't apply quite so much to 3rd-narrative, omnicient, some scenes in cinematic, or 2nd. Attached to this is the "if a painter steps into a room, the first thing he'll notice is the tapestries on the walls, while a carpenter will notice the nails used to hang the tapestries and what wood the floors are made of, etc."

    1. Nope, I think it's something to think about no matter what the POV is.

    2. I guess it really depends upon your narrator for the voice parts, although picking the right word voice-aside is important too, so I greatly soften my comment here. 3rd-objective has no voice, (although for that reason you really shouldn't use it except in extreme cases), but you can still pick the closest word to what you really mean.

    3. I think, even in 3rd-objective, there is reason to vary word usage, because it's another tool to contrast quiet scenes with action scenes, child characters with adult ones, etc.

      A very fast example off the top of my head is, if you're setting a battle shot (since I know you write more epic stuff), you would probably use bigger descriptors, more poetic/flowing language. BUT, when you get down into the meat of the battle, you're going to switch over to fast, quick words. Sure, you'll still be describing the blood, gore, and spilled guts, but the words you use are going to be much different than the 'scene setting' paragraphs.

    4. Of course. What I mean is that there aren't any subjective factors in 3rd-objective. You can't say "Ronald brought down his axe in a massive swing" because that's subjective. You still choose "brought down" rather than "swung" or "chopped", but the massive part and any non-objective adjectives and adverbs cannot be used, giving a far plainer, truer picture. Pace and the natural length of the words can very from passage to passage, yes.

    5. Sure, but I think you can also select words for a particular character, even in that POV.

      See, rather than 'brought down' 'swung' or 'chopped', I might instead say something like, 'he hefted the axe, and let the weight topple forward into the shoulder of a barbarian' to show that the soldier had little skill (topple), strength (heft), and probably, little interest in learning the skills (a combination of lacking skill and strength).

      This is just a fast example off the top of my head though. I did write a 3rd POV with two characters, one a child, and I remember when the focus was on him for a chapter, I specifically tailored descriptions/etc to smaller words, and how/what he interacted with in contrast with his older brother.

      Obviously subtler than swapping between two 1st POV, but you can still do it subtly.

  3. You know what this post reminds me of? I don't know if you've ever read the Golden Compass books, but this reminds me of the alethiometer that Lyra uses to interpret things happening in the present/future. Each symbol on the compass has dozens of shades of meaning... I can't remember anything specific off the top of my head, but something like a leaf might mean changing seasons, or a light weight, or nature. I like the idea that synonyms each have their own shades of meaning depending on who is performing the action or why. Great post as always!

    1. Heh, yup, I read it a looooooong time ago.

      Very good comparison, thanks!

      ...I know, I am completely OCD with words and their baggage :p


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