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Purposes for Connecting Words into Story

October 2, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 2, 2012

Word choice makes stories unique. A dozen stories about a boy running off to war, each with perfect grammar and punctuation, will sound and feel different. Not only because of plot events and characters, but because of the words used to tell the story.

I’ve written a couple of articles about word choices, about making words fit character and era and genre and story events, because words are not only the building blocks of story, but they are the directors of story. They flavor it. They give it color and depth and richness.

Word choice for novels is no small thing. Actually, it’s quite a big thing. And you can make your books memorable by choosing words purposely.

The words you use make your stories unique. They not only give story life, they define that life. They make it understandable to the reader.

And words draw your reader in.

We can get so caught up in plot and character that we forget effect, the effect of words and actions and events on characters and on readers.

Readers can be affected by your stories. May be affected so much that they change their life path or goals or habits.

Your words may change the direction of someone’s life.

Your words might give a reader a goal or purpose.

Or maybe the change is only momentary—you make a reader laugh or cry or consider a position you mention. Maybe your words spark a real-world dialogue.

Maybe your words spark riots. Affection. Love. Rage.

Reconciliation.

Maybe your words rekindle a forgotten yearning.

Maybe your words lighten a load. Maybe they churn up guilt.

Maybe your words open eyes. Or doors. Or possibilities.

Maybe a love scene in a book leads to a love scene in a real-world bedroom.

Maybe your words, so carefully crafted, set a young woman on a path of space exploration or scientific discovery or into a study of medicine.

Your words affect your readers. Why not purposely stir them? Why not give them more than Mary walked down the road, Mary looked across the room, Mary crossed over to the window?

Consciously, blatantly, choose words that shake up the reader. That move a woman to tears. That make a little boy laugh. That have pre-teens huddled under the covers, giggling one minute, shrieking the next.

Choose words for their effects. Think in terms of motivation and emotion. Use words that do more than take up space on the page, do more than lie there impotent and bland and forgettable.

Know the effect you want and choose words to create that effect. Exaggerate it. Make it pulse through your readers. Layer effects with your choices and word combinations.

Learn to know not only when a word is right but when a word is wrong, when it dulls the scene and leaches the power from a moment.

Cut out even powerful words when they’re the wrong words for the character and the situation.

Be deliberate and consistent so words form a cohesive whole.

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Don’t fear engaging the reader’s emotions. Yes, you can tickle his mind, but you can also make him feel. Choose words to do just that.

And know what you want the reader to feel. Don’t hope to create some vague emotion; aim for one.

You connect words into sentences and chapters and books for a purpose. What is that purpose? Putting aside for the moment the words you choose for your characters, consider the words you choose for your readers.

For what purpose do you even choose words? What are you trying to do for or to the reader?

Are you unsure? Have you never asked yourself why you connect words? Let me give you a few (actually, more than a few) possibilities for why you may write, why you sit at a desk for hours connecting one word to the next and to the next and to the next. You’ll probably think of dozens more.

Choose one for each of your scenes. Choose one for every chapter. Choose one or two for the novel as a whole. Tape your purpose to your monitor or tack it to your wall, where you can see it and be reminded of your reason for writing another story.

Keep in mind we’re talking about readers here. What’s your purpose in writing this particular story? What do you want your words, your story, to do for the reader? What do you want the reader to do when he reads your words?

Write to—

Advance

Anger

Arouse

Bless

Bring joy

Build

Comfort

Confound

Confuse

Connect

Contrast

Control

Convince

Curse

Deflate

Delay

Desensitize

Destroy

Direct

Discourage

Divide

Embolden

Encourage

Enlighten

Entertain

Frighten

Hide

Hurt

Influence

Inspire

Lead

Make clear

Manipulate

Misdirect

Obscure

Overwhelm

Proclaim

Retreat

Sensitize

Sever

Shock

Soothe

Surprise

Sway

Teach

Tickle

Uncover

Unite

Warn

Do any of these words speak to you, beguile you, demand that you write just for them? If not, find your own purpose. Beyond the needs of the story, for what reasons do you write? How can you affect the reader who comes to your book for a diversion or an emotional charge or for titillation or for comfort?

Choose your words for impact. Make each count. Craft phrases and scenes and chapters so that readers, and not only characters, are directed and moved.

Speak into a reader’s life by speaking through a character’s life.

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And lest anyone think I’m advocating poetic phrasings and complex sentences and fancy words for every line, let me assure you that I am not.

Of course you need workhorse words and sentences. Sometimes Mary simply does walk across the room. But not always. Not in every scene. Not every scene in every chapter of every book.

Pay attention to your word choices; your readers do.

Give them something to shake up their worlds, whether the shake-up lasts two minutes or a lifetime. Reward them for reading your story. Make them anticipate the next one. Make them crave it.

Know your purposes for creating worlds and adventures and characters who leave a mark. Understand that your words do affect your readers.

Give them words worth reading and emotions worth feeling.

Give readers affecting words and awesome story.

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