Thursday, January 6, 2011

WRITING TIP | Flame or Fire?

Should a character yell or roar? Consider or muse? Ask or plead?

As you read a novel, have you noticed one word can change the entire tone of a sentence?

Word precision has proven one of my most valuable tools as a writer. After all, a story is a collection of words which set the tone for the reader’s experience. The words an author uses hint at where readers should set their expectations. The right word can transform a sentence into an art form.

If you think about it, word selection reflects how we live our lives. How many times have we chosen a word in conversation to avoid offending someone? For that matter, how many conversations have turned ugly because we picked a word we later regretted?

I must credit my brother for introducing me to word selection. I spent years as a songwriter by hobby. As a teenager, I’d written a love song and used the word “fire” in one of its verses. My brother read the lyrics and pointed out, “Actually, if you’re writing a love song, you probably want to use ‘flame’ instead. ‘Fire’ sounds aggressive, but ‘flame’ sounds more romantic.”

My brother thought he’d pointed out a detail. But his observation revolutionized my world as a writer. Never again did I view words—or their effect—in the same light. I’ve incorporated this concept into every project since.

What’s the context of the chapter? Does it highlight the main character’s first kiss? Or does it follow the character as he escapes a crazed murderer?

This can apply to individual letters as well. On a comical note, I put this to the test in college. When writing a term paper for a political science class, I tried using alliteration—a string of words that begin with the same letter—to try to make the reading experience more pleasant for the instructor. If I recall correctly, I struck together several “s” words to make the sentence soft and pleasant, and several “t” words to make the corners of her mouth turn up in a smile. (“Why do I enjoy reading this paper so much?” :-) Did the word selection help? No idea. I did receive an A on the paper!

In all sincerity, though, I gave similar consideration to the words in my novel From The Dead.

In chapter 19 of From The Dead, the scene of Jesse’s suicide attempt, I opted for words that contain harsh consonants or invoke harsh imagery: ink blackness, agony, blade, agitate, writhe, streak.

But in chapter 47, a gentle love scene lent itself to softer words and romantic imagery: aural glow, nuances, embrace, palm, balmy, swathe, gasp for breath.

Try to find some interesting word choices in books you've enjoyed over the years.

Never give up!

John Herrick

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