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Twist Words to Surprise Readers

April 27, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 27, 2013

We’ve all read books that are quite enjoyable, with serviceable word choices and workhorse phrases, books that entertain but that we forget soon after reading.

You’ve also no doubt read books that stay with you long after you finish the story. Thoughts about such books may surprise you when you close your eyes, as you ease along the edge of sleep at night. You may even find yourself reaching for those books to revisit a particular passage that moved you or caught your attention, words that challenged or shocked.

The surprise might have come from an unforeseen event or through a character who touched your soul or troubled your emotions.

Or you might have been surprised by a phrase, a word choice, that turned the mundane into the exceptional, a word choice that awakened you to the story in a way no other phrase could have done.

That’s what I want to talk about today, the use of word choices that get a reader’s attention and keep them attached to the story. Maybe keep them attached to you as a writer.

I’m talking word choices that twist the common, allowing you to see a different side or facet, twists that make words and passages of text shine. Words that crack open a scene, forcing rough edges or raw emotion to protrude. Words used in the wrong context that actually prove to be perfect in that context. Verbs used as nouns, nouns used as verbs. Adjectives used as nouns that get readers nodding their heads or laughing or smiling or pulling your book closer and settling in for another chapter.

Poets seek this kind of phrasing as a matter of course and although you don’t necessarily need to write poetically, do take advantage of this technique. At least give it a shot at some time.

No, not every story needs this particular approach, but every writer needs to be aware that it exists and that following it can alter stories in profound ways.

Word choices shape story (plot and character) as well as influence the reader. As you write, caught up in moving characters from one event to another, remember your readers. Give thought to what a single word change might mean to them, how it can influence the whole reading experience. And then take advantage of your knowledge and skills to craft sentences that create the very image or atmosphere a scene needs.

Use Words in Surprising Ways

~  Try pairing words that don’t belong together to create an image or emotion that startles or that’s so perfect that it seems the combination should have always belonged together.

Link opposites as a pair or use common pairings in opposition.

~  You’ve no doubt written late at night, typing faster than your sluggish thoughts (or thinking faster than your fingers can type), writing the wrong word now and again. Instead of merely correcting your mistakes, see if you can’t mine them for something fresh, some new image or metaphor or take on the common.

~  Use fresh verbs to describe the motion of a character or object that’s been described thousands of times before.

~  Use nouns and adjectives as verbs, verbs and adjectives as nouns. You’re writing fiction, so you get to make words work for you rather than forcing yourself to be subject to them. You’re not writing an essay, being graded on the way you use existing words. You’re a creator. Give yourself the latitude, as Shakespeare did, to make up words or use them in novel ways, whatever you need to portray the emotion and action of the scene.

~  Give characters the freedom to think or say anything—none of us are so perfect in our thoughts and grammar, especially in stressful circumstances, that we don’t jumble our words. Jumble your characters’ words, on purpose, for effect.

You still have to write in ways that readers can understand and you don’t want your unique word choices to distract, but you certainly don’t need to use the common and expected in every line. Your word choices should reflect your characters in their setting and at this one moment in their lives. What makes these characters different from every other character in a similar situation? What makes their predicament unlike that of any other person at any other time? Often the only difference is the one you create with your words, those you include as well as those you exclude.

Is this easy, writing creatively, searching for new ways to convey the common and familiar? No, no, and no. Choosing unusual words and phrases that fit plot, character, setting, events, and genre while at the same time making a story entertaining and seemingly original may be one of the most difficult tasks you’ll face as a writer.

You’re a human and a reader, so you have experiences in common with everyone else. Your first word choices might well be the same first choices of every other person, writer or not. But it’s your job to show readers something different. Something unexpected. It’s up to you to twist a phrase or word, to expose a different side or facet or perspective. It’s up to you to create that different perspective.

It’s up to you to push past that first word choice that comes to you, to explore options. To turn the words upside down and inside out. To realign them. To do more than the easy choice—simply throwing words together—which anyone, writer or not, could do.

Don’t think that a good idea can’t stand tweaking or that your first thought for a phrase is the best. If the majority of your words and phrases remain unchanged from first draft to final draft, you’re either the best natural writer in the world or you haven’t done your job.

A story’s focus, theme, tone, plot, and characters’ personalities can change so much from the penning of the first words to the addition of the last that a writer can’t help but need to change not only broad scenes, but individual words. What fit when you started writing five months earlier may not fit the story that takes shape as new ideas come to mind, as the story’s needs make themselves known.

Don’t be satisfied with your first phrases and word choices; make each fit the story that ultimately emerges. Make each inevitably lead to the story that ultimately emerges.


Don’t go for the easy and the common, not for every line in your story. Stretch yourself. Open your eyes to possibilities so you can also stretch the imaginations of your readers.

If dialogue or description or action comes easily to you, you might not even consider your word choices. You might even assume that a great scene can’t be improved. But changing a word or phrase can not only nail a scene, making it both serviceable and memorable, it can also thrust a story to the next level, can change an entertaining story into a must-read novel.

I’m not talking about sentences that pop so noticeably that a reader is stopped, that he has to admire the construction. What we’re talking about is word choice and phrasings that draw the reader deeper into the fiction, that make it vibrant and believable. That make it real.

Want readers to suspend their disbelief and doubts? Then make your stories seem authentic, as if your characters actually live in the locale where you placed them, having relationships with those you surrounded them with and dealing with the troubles you wrote them into.

Use words that make a character’s challenges meaningful for the reader. Use words to make a character’s problems matter.

Make the reader care about the story’s outcome.

Don’t worry about word choice too much while you’re getting a scene down the first time; first drafts don’t necessarily have outstanding word choices. But as you rewrite and edit, manipulate characters and emotions through your word choices. Choose words that make your story events and characters unique, that give your fiction an uncommon style. That make your novels worth seeking out.

A few simple examples—

He was a beat cop, had been for a dozen years, walking the streets, monitoring the pulse of his city. But that night the street walked him, leading Pauly away from integrity and into corruption.

The brothers who’d had nothing in common in their teen years grew to favor one another by the time the youngest reached thirty. John minced meat, Randy minced bodies, and TJ never minced words before judges when working to keep the other two out of prison.

Flames raced licked danced swaggered toward Jennifer’s bedroom, just as Alphonso had earlier. Yet this time Dan wouldn’t let the aggressor reach his target.

The tux instantly eleganced him, turning the thug into a sanctioned corporate raider using only a few pricey yards of cloth.

He jacketed her within his arms, protecting her from the wind and sleet.

Tate stumbled into happy after a long detour through depression and fear. And he planned to never leave.

Antoine repeatedly tapped pen to paper, noodling through the options Michelle had offered, seeking an alternative.


Would you want to do this throughout a piece of long fiction, include unusual phrase after unusual phrase? Maybe. Maybe the style is literary and the story can support quite a number of such phrasings.

Yet it’s likely that only one viewpoint character would be given to this type of uncommon wording. So if you have multiple viewpoint characters, not all would look at their world in unusual ways. At least not in the same unusual way. You’d then use this approach as one more way to differentiate characters, including unusual word choices for only one character. Yet, as with any element, you also wouldn’t want to overburden the story or overwhelm the reader with too much of one thing, even a good thing. So you also need uncomplicated, straightforward phrases for every character. Sometimes simple is best.

You’d never want a reader thinking get on with the story already; enough of these odd words. Conversely, you also wouldn’t want to include only two or three in a 90,000-word novel; using only two or three innovative phrasings would make them stand out too much from the norm when instead they should fit comfortably into the story. So the viewpoint character would likely use a more poetic phrasing multiple times rather than just once or twice. That is, two or three such phrasings draws attention to the writer—oh, isn’t that clever. A couple dozen reveals a character.


Check your current work in progress—if you’re well beyond the first draft, have you started to consider word choices? If not, schedule that in. Use not only specific verbs and nouns to direct your story and stir reader emotions, but create original phrases and use words in novel ways to make your story sound different.

Twist words, using them to draw readers deep, that have readers unconsciously thinking, I’ve never read this before; I wonder what’ll happen next?

Introduce the untried, the original, to your fiction. Write stand-out stories.

Use word choices to differentiate your fiction from the common.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

8 Responses to “Twist Words to Surprise Readers”

  1. “If the majority of your words and phrases remain unchanged from first draft to final draft, you’re either the best natural writer in the world or you haven’t done your job.”

    Nothing truer! However I think one must not try to be too original either, especially if wishing to publish through the traditional way. Sometimes it could feel contrived and miss to hit the mark.

  2. Tracey says:

    This was a great post, might have been easier to read if the earlier half of the article had a few more examples in it rather then just those at the end. I needed something to link your “Yours words in a surprising way” list to for clarity.
    Saying that, this is a great article and the last comment about looking at your word choices after the first draft was something I needed to hear.


  3. Stephanie, it’s true that readers like the fresh and the familiar, so a writer has to play a bit, see what will capture readers without turning them off. But as long as writers keep the reader in mind, I have no doubts that they’ll be able to write creatively as well as in a way that appeals to readers.

    Thanks for reminding us that there’s always a flip side to everything, even when we’re talking about writing.

  4. Tracey, it’s that space between the sub-heading and the text, I’m sure, that tripped you up. I might have to take that out.

    I’m glad you found the article useful. Sometimes word choice gets forgotten when there’s so much else to consider, and we just need a reminder now and then about delving into the nitty-gritty of individual words.

    Thanks for letting us know you were here.

  5. Seekerville says:

    Really, another excellent post. You do an awesome job of clearly showing (ha, instead of just telling). Very helpful. We often link to your posts on our group blog and will again do so Saturday in our Weekend Edition. Thank you for helping writers on the journey.

  6. Thank you, Seekerville. It’s truly a pleasure. I tend to overexplain, most likely a result of some of my former jobs where I had to devise multiple ways to explain something to make sure that everyone mastered the material.

    The best of success to you and all your group.