Word Choice

Cozy two bedroom in trendy neighborhood. Original hardword floors and fixtures. Pets allowed with deposit.

Real estate listings are great examples of proper word choice. They spin the description to sound positive and hide the negative. No matter how they intended us to interpret the meaning, our experiences influence what we think when we hear ‘cozy’ and ‘original.’ To a DIY type (do it yourself) ‘original’ could mean a great opportunity to restore, or remodel. To a hoarder ‘cozy’ just does not denote enough space. And if you had allergies? But what does the listing say about the property manager? Hold that thought.

What makes something sexy? Scary? Intense? Can you create tone and emotion but be brief? Or does it require an intricately detailed story? Choosing the right words can turn your writing from okay to emotionally heavy, powerful. And you want power, yes?

Denotation is the defined meaning of a word. You can look a word up in a dictionary and it will tell you what most people think that word means. It is not what the word means to everyone. Dictionaries don’t create the rules they report on what the general public are using and how.

Connotation is the implied meaning of a word. Skinny, slim, thin, and scrawny may have the same denotation but their implied meaning depends on context (when and where they are said) and content (who and how). If your bitchy, self-righteous animal activist is calling the local butcher scrawny, with a shocked tone, it means something different than a fat girl calling her ex-boyfriend scrawny. Connotation and Denotation, the first two layers of meaning.

The third layer is what is revealed about the character whose POV we are in. Their level of education, their past sexual partners, their birth order. Are they from the south? Do they think they deserve love? Is their accent legit? If we are in the butcher’s head it will sound differently than when we are in the animal activist’s head.

Great. So what? Well, if you are aware of the importance of word choice, you can make your story stronger, more powerful as you revise. You’ve seen the difference. As a reader you’ve read sex scenes that didn’t feel sexy. Characters have sobbed emotional tears all over the page and you’ve shrugged your shoulders. But you’ve also read stories where the briefest touch or smoldering look between two characters made your heart race and fan yourself. A simple story about a mom that cut the crust off sandwiches can make you weep through a whole box of tissues.

Pride and Prejudice is a good example, partly because it is fairly likely that you’ve read the book or seen the movie. As a reader I hated Darcy and was absolutely shocked when he proposed marriage at the end of the book. Why? Because Elizabeth’s POV was skewed after his unintentional cut at their first meeting. She was determined to see him in a certain light so the reader does too.

Another example is Suzanne Brockmann’s characters Jules Cassidy and Adam Wyndhem. Adam is about to get his own Happily Ever After in her upcoming ebook When Tony Met Adam. As a reader I didn’t think he deserved one. All her characters are flawed but he cheated and made some really stupid mistakes. But all of that? All those opinions formed about him are from other character’s POVs. What Jules thinks of him and the words he uses to describe him are different from the words Alyssa Locke (Jule’s friend and FBI partner) uses. Adam screwed up but so did Jules, who in my opinion has a Superman complex, but we’ll save that for character flaws. Adam’s side of the story isn’t so black and white, good and bad.

Here is an everyday example. Think of the woman at work/church/school who is always complaining about her husband/boyfriend, he treats her like scum and you can’t imagine why they are still together. And then you meet him at a Christmas party or company picnic or grocery store and he seems nice and even normal. In her complaints she leaves out the positive. You don’t hear his side of the argument.

I recently read an entry for a contest in which a character was reliving a car accident. The scene described the accident and the death of one of the passengers. It read mechanical and empty and I wondered if the writer had ever been in a car accident, if they had ever loss someone they loved. I wasn’t convinced.

Now this isn’t about writing what you know. You don’t have to be in a car accident to describe how it feels. The distortion of time, the howling void in your stomach, the rush of adrenaline after it is over that makes you shake. Instead you can imagine. You can take how it felt to take a major test and intensify it. That date that went horribly wrong becomes the perfect fodder for a public knife fight.

Here is a way to practice. The hands-on part of this lesson. Right now you are sitting some place reading this article. Write a page describing the room but do it from the POV of a person who is tied to a chair. A whole page to describe the room, no dialogue and no other characters.

Practice, part b. Now describe the room from the POV of a person who has just been told that she is going to be a grandmother for the first time. A whole page to describe the room, no dialogue and no other characters. Yes, you can read ahead but make sure you actually do this. Time yourself and see how quickly you can whip out a page.

Now the hard part. Go back and look at the description and find ways to emphasize the tone. Yes the captured prisoner is looking for things that will help him escape but does he use words that signify that he has given up hope? Are objects rounded and soft or sharp and bitter. Same objects but if he is confident that help is on the way those objects are nothing compared to how bad it could really be.

Same objects, same room and the grandmother-to-be is either thinking about baby proofing the room or everything looks beautiful and magical because she feels those things inside. She loves that ragged old pair of tennis shoes. The captured prisoner might see them as salvation, despite their jagged edges, when he has to run for his life. Ragged. Jagged. Same denotation, different connotation and different character. Right word.

So now, as Cherry Adair would say, write the damn book. But then go back and make it stronger by choosing words that mean more, that reflect all the layers of meaning.

"Word Choice" first appeared in the April 2011 edition of Heart of Romance, the newsletter of the Coeur de Bois
Chapter ( of Romance Writers of America in Boise, Idaho.