Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
The original of this article was written in 2007 and posted to A Novel Edit in 2009. I’ve posted it here for easier access for readers of The Editor’s Blog. This is an expanded version of the original.
Are there words that work for one story but not another, that fit a non-fiction article but stick out, rather obviously, in a short story or novel?
The short answer is, of course.
A business report will not likely contain quaint country axioms and slang. It will use company-speak and jargon typical for the industry. A reader expects those terms, and such words foster communication between writer (or those who’ve commissioned the writer) and readers.
In the world of fiction, word choice can also be critical. Will your character say ain’t gonna and homeboy or will he say I will not do that and companion? Perhaps his words will tend toward the average—I’m not going to and friend. Each character will have his own speech style, though terms used would be similar for those in a close-knit home or community.
But why is word choice important?
A work of fiction invites us into a make-believe world, unreal by at least one measure. That is, we may people our fiction with characters from history or use actual events as a starting place, but something—the events or plot or dialogue or other characters—are solely the work of our imaginations. Our imaginary world may be one completely unknown to us in the sense that we’ve never experienced it—a medieval court, a 1928 speakeasy, or the outer moon of Aldon-Five. Or, we may choose a contemporary setting but invent everything and everyone in it.
The more our words reflect the genre and setting and time period and characters, the stronger the connect for the reader.
You don’t want to shock your reader out of your story because you’ve used the wrong words. Okay in pre-Revolutionary France? Automation in the Spain of the Moors? Tigers on the wrong continent? Crops grown where they could never grow? That willing suspension of disbelief that the reader takes into a story is tested, if not broken, by words that don’t suit a story. Poorly chosen words can shatter the wall between fiction and reality in an instant.
On the other hand, words that fit your story—the characters or locale or time period or genre—will pull the reader deeper into your tale. The right words will wrap the fiction tight around your reader, allowing him to fully enjoy the world and events you’ve created.
Words, like sounds, are evocative. They can create instant feelings or images in the reader. Words that reflect an era, words such as speakeasy, booze, coppers, doll, gin mill, scram, and swanky, can draw your readers in by instantly identifying time and at least partial place. The words themselves, without elaboration and without much work on the writer’s part, can produce an image of your scene or raise an emotion in the reader. They evoke feeling and images beyond simple words on a page.
We must remember, however, that a reader may have attachments to certain words, aversions to others. And not all readers will have the same feelings and images from a word. You’ll want to use words that reflect or establish the era, but words that create the right emotion in the reader as well.
Choose words for not only era or setting, but for character too. A policeman in 1928 Chicago wouldn’t necessarily use the same words that a mobster uses. A college student would use slang different from his father’s business jargon. A leader of New York society would use words different from those of a Kansas farmer.
When your farmer uses comparisons, does he use the same words a sailor might? He shouldn’t. Perhaps he describes a man with a head the shape of a cabbage and just as dense. The same farmer might compare his neighbor’s ability to get out of a mess to the antics of an elusive piglet.
Characters should use words they’d be familiar with, not words plucked at random from a thesaurus and definitely not words from the author’s experiences. Characters thinking and speaking words specific to their backgrounds and experiences deepens the fiction for the reader. Using such words is a simple way for writers to make the imaginary seem real.
What colors does the farmer know that the sailor has never seen? What textures and odors? The farmer’s words will reflect the earth; the sailor’s, the sea. Both may be familiar with storms and seasons, but they won’t necessarily see such things in the same light.
How about the contemporary private eye who lives in Las Vegas? Would he use the same terms as the street kid in 1810 London?
The urchin might know every slang phrase for policeman. He might know everything about his neighborhood and nothing about politics or history or even the gentry. He might be ignorant of horses, so he couldn’t use references to their size or speed or endurance. But he could compare a friend to a sneaky, fleet-footed rat.
Would the Vegas detective use the same words? Not likely. Might he be a smooth talker where the street kid was rough? Or maybe they’re both rough and both uneducated. Yet the contemporary detective will use words familiar to his world and the kid will use words from his.
Which verbs best reflect a character? Would your shop girl grab or grasp or pick up or cradle or stroke a silk scarf? (Should there be a shop girl at all, or should the character be a male clerk because women didn’t work in retail establishments in your time period?)
How does your character move? Use comparisons that fit the character and the time period. Does your protagonist stroll with the languid pace befitting a man of leisure in the tropics? Or is he all hustle and bustle, standing out against his more sedate companions?
Another way to fit words to story is to use verbs that reflect the character’s profession or trade or hobby. A carpenter or woodworker might hammer or pound or polish or join or build—and not only when working on his craft. Words that reinforce elements of the character’s personality keep those elements in the reader’s mind, once again tightening the ties to the fiction.
Create similes and metaphors and comparisons that make sense for the character and place and time.
Take as an example a description of darkness using the color black. (And please excuse the clichés.) Would your character say—or would those in your time period understand—black as coal, black as pitch, blacker than a cave, as black as a dragon’s innards, or as dark as the lip of a black hole?
The right words make all the difference between a competent story and a work of literature that has depth and layers. Weave the strands of the story by your word choices. The tighter and more entwined you make them, the harder they are to unravel. And none of us want our tales to unravel.
How do we make our words story specific?
Take a few minutes to consider the time period and ask yourself some questions.
What products are available?
Is new technology a big deal?
What is the political mood of the era? The religious?
What foods are common?
How do the people travel, communicate, educate their children?
What do the people know about the world outside their village, city, planet?
How are the people affected by war, prosperity, famine?
Is your time period accurately portrayed?
Imagine household items your characters use. Straight razor or safety razor or electric razor?
Determine how long travel would take for the period and available transportation.
Do your words reflect this era? The technology of the day? What about the politics, religion, and social mores of the time you’ve chosen?
Do your characters think as a man or woman of the year 2007 or 1940 or 1653 or 2499 might?
Look at setting and locale.
What is the weather like? How does it affect the characters? What words best describe it?
Is this city or country or small town or the interior of an apartment? Are characters isolated by location or by their mistrust of others? Are neighbors friendly or nosy or absent?
Is the landscape rich or barren?
What would be available to your characters? What wouldn’t be?
Do you convey more than description with your words? Do you give a sense of claustrophobia or open spaces or clutter? Do your city streets echo with car horns and jackhammers and the bells of ice cream trucks or do your characters (and thus your readers) hear nothing as they walk Lexington Avenue?
Study your characters.
What is the educational level of each major character? Do speech and word choices reflect their differences? Their similarities?
What are their professions? Their hobbies? Their life experiences?
What do they read? What are their dreams? What do they know of the world? What don’t they know? What can’t they know?
What about genre?
Does your romantic hero talk like a hard-bitten detective? Is he an anti-hero, better suited to a suspense story? How does he act and react and think? What does he wear?
What is common to the genre, expected by its readers?
Have you chosen words familiar to readers of the genre? Will readers of sci-fi feel comfortable with your words? What about romance readers? For those who love political thrillers, are you using words that deepen intrigue? What of words that refer to gadgets or conspiracies or government secrets?
Have you written for the specific and particular rather than the general? Would your words fit any story or are they peculiar to one tale?
Story-specific words add an extra dimension to a story. They reach beyond correct punctuation and grammar. They press deeper than plot and characterization. They go to a third level of writing, a level that deals with layers and symbols and meaning and rhythm. Mastery of the elements at this level assures the writer that each story he produces is not only a good read but a great work.