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Zeroing in on Words

June 8, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 12, 2014

Understanding the importance of word choice is vital for developing the vibrant and entertaining stories you want to create. The right words are essential for crafting memorable characters and unforgettable or resonant plots. The right words in the right place make an impact. They create moments and memories. They can create life.

The right words inform story, infusing it with the essentials that make it breathe, that help it take on an existence as capable of touching real people—moving them emotionally—as do factual events and living people in their lives.

I was going to write once again about the importance of taking out references to the viewpoint character or narrator in order to keep readers close to the action and immersed in the setting—taking out filtering words—but as I was working on examples, I got caught up showing how changing a word or two can create different effects, a different impact or feel, in a sentence. (For information on filtering words, see the article Filters in Fiction: Keep Readers Close to Action and Emotion.)

So this article is a hodgepodge of suggestions for changing words for a variety of reasons and effects.

As you read these suggestions, keep in mind that changing up sentences, changing words and word order, is a task for rewriting and editing and not for when you’re writing a first draft or for adding new scenes in subsequent drafts. Write your scenes without giving thought to how you’ll rewrite them or to the choosing of the perfect word—don’t slow or stop the flow to fix a word when you’re in the writing zone. Changing words and word order and tweaking, refining, and improving the text come at another time. Yes, if you think of the perfect word, go ahead and add it so it’s not forgotten. But don’t dwell on trying to get a scene or section or even a sentence perfectly perfect if the creative juices are flowing and you instead should be writing what happens next.

Sample Sentences

Let’s mess around with some examples, a group of related sentences, as we explore choosing words at the sentence or phrase level. By no means will we cover every concern regarding word choice in fiction; the topic is so vast, we couldn’t possible cover every issue in one article. But as you rewrite and edit, do so with the ideas presented here in mind.

Our examples, which we will examine in the next section—

I could hear the wind whipping through the trees.

I heard the wind whipping through the trees.

Wind whipped through the trees.

Wind whipped through the willows.

Wind whipped through the elms.

Wind whistled through the willows.

Wind whispered through the elms.

A howling wind whipped through the trees.

A howling wind rattled the leaves.

Filtering Through the Viewpoint Character

In the first three sentences, we go from emphasis on the narrator’s ability (could hear) to emphasis on one of the narrator’s senses (hearing) to emphasis on the sound itself (wind whipping).

Let’s start with the first sentence, one that may or may not be exactly what a scene and a paragraph call for.

I could hear the wind whipping through the trees.

In this sentence the focus is on the narrator, keeping her firmly in view. And not only in view, but as the focal element. The accent is not necessarily on the wind, on the whipping, or on the trees. The focus is on the narrator’s ability to hear.

While you may have occasion to convey that a character can hear, when that’s not the focus or the point of the sentence—when you don’t even notice that you’re pointing out the character’s ability rather than some thing itself—the word showing the ability (often could or can) is unnecessary and puts distance between readers and the important elements of a clause or phrase or sentence. In our case, the whipping wind.

If readers don’t need to know that the character can hear or that such a common ability is present, skip the reference to the ability.

Once you remove references to abilities, what else can be considered?

I heard the wind whipping through the trees.

This sentence has lost the ability element but still keeps the narrator in the thick of what’s happening with the reference to the character’s sensing of a sound. Again, there are times when this is exactly what you want, the detail you need to convey, especially when the sensing itself is important—maybe the character couldn’t hear or see or taste before, but now can. But this type of wording still holds readers at a distance, making them have to plow through the narrator and her senses before getting to the meat of the sentence—that wind whipping through the trees.

This may not be a major problem if this wording is used only a few times throughout a novel. But if the format is used again and again, the sense of distance between reader and story events, setting, and characters will increase.

Also, giving the narrator or viewpoint character the second most important place in the sentence says that she is more important than some other sentence elements. If that’s not true, if what the character is sensing is more important than the fact that she heard or saw or smelled something, you’ll want to either cut the reference to the viewpoint character or reword the sentence.

Note: The most important sentence position is the end, where the words resonate and are remembered by the reader. The final words of the final sentence of the final paragraph of a scene or a chapter (particularly a chapter) are noticed, automatically have power, and resonate beyond the turning of a page. They can highlight emotions or raise the emotional level. They can direct both character and reader to the next scene and incite anticipation. They are power words.

You want to put key words in that place of power and resonance. End sentences with strong words.

The second most important sentence position is the beginning. Words there become the setup for what follows. They guide reader and character through the action of a sentence. They are preparation and usually tell the reader who or what is involved in what’s about to happen. They keep the reader oriented, they connect to what has come before, and they hint at what’s to follow.

The least important spot in a sentence is the middle. You can hide information in the middles of sentences because the accent or thrust of the sentence typically falls after this point. The information you include here is necessary, but readers don’t hone in on it as they do the words at the beginning and end.

(Sentence positions are relative, of course, and dependent on the length of the sentence.)

While every word of every sentence should be necessary—if they’re not, toss the words out or change them and/or the surrounding words to make them necessary—they can’t all have the same importance or value or emphasis.

You can’t shout every word. You can’t whisper every word. Some words get more play and more attention, some get less.

My point is that you want to choose your words deliberately, even for what you might consider throwaway sentences. And you want to put those words in the proper location to draw the attention they need to draw and make the impact you need them to make. Every sentence should hold the right words at the right position.

Reducing references to the narrator in both first- and third-person narration nudges the reader closer to the action or setting. Most of the time you’ll want to keep the reader close, with no extra levels of words to wade through. If you want the reader to hear or feel the whipping wind, cut out references to the narrator and go right to the whipping wind. In first person or close third person, there’s seldom a need to use ability or sense words in relation to the viewpoint character—it’s clear who is doing the sensing. It’s clear, when you mention a whipping wind, that the viewpoint character has the ability to see or feel it. You don’t have to point out the obvious.

This may seem self-evident and thus overkill to dwell on the topic, but weak and imprecise wording adds up over the course of a 90,000-word story and such references to ability and the viewpoint character’s senses creep in to many manuscripts. Be exact and clear in order to make a strong impact and to create unmuddied, distinct, and vibrant imagery and action.

Note: If you’re writing with more distance on purpose, if your intention is to create the feel of someone telling a story, reporting on what’s happening, then ability and sense words are exactly what you want to use. They’ll help create that barrier between reader and character, between reader and setting and reader and event, so that the reader actually feels like an outsider or a watcher and not a participant.

Changing Words to Vary Impact

Let’s look at other ways that changing words can alter the impact or feel of a scene. We’ll use the same basic sentences, but move them through more changes. We’ll begin where we left off after stripping out the sense and ability words.

Wind whipped through the trees.

To help the reader feel and see and experience the story moment even more directly, more accurately—beyond cutting filter words and references to the viewpoint character—substitute the specific for the general. In our example, we can go from trees—vague, unidentified, generic—to a specific tree such as a willow. That may be a sufficient change, giving us a sentence that works for our needs. But on the other hand, even that change may need refining.

Wind whipped through the willows.

The Wind in the Willows has been done, and we don’t want readers making that connection in their thoughts, pulling them out of our story, so we go a step farther and try elms.

Wind whipped through the elms.

This new sentence may be exactly what you want, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe the sound or the feel or the rhythm isn’t right. Maybe the sentence doesn’t flow with the surrounding text. Maybe you’ve got a character named Elsie or Elmer and you don’t want the confusion that elms would create when that character is named in the next sentence. Maybe elms is too short a word or it doesn’t make the impact it needs to make. Maybe the sentence just lies there, without adding to the scene. So maybe you look next at changing the verb. And if you change the verb, maybe you can go back to those willows, the word you really wanted to use.

What if you used whistled or whispered rather than whipped?

Wind whistled through the willows.

Wind whispered through the willows.

Wind whistled through the elms.

Wind whispered through the elms.

Wind whistled through the trees.

If you change the verb, does that mean you can go back to the generic trees? And here’s another consideration—would the viewpoint character even know the type of tree being whipped around by the wind? (Ah, the considerations and options for a simple, seemingly simple, sentence.)

And does any of this really matter, all this messing about with a single sentence of description? Are you thinking . . .

I’m writing (fill in the genre), not literary fiction. Do I really have to be so picky about a single sentence describing the setting?

And for those writing literary fiction, are you thinking . . .

I’m more concerned about the psychology of my characters—why the big deal about whispering and whistling winds?

Simple sentences matter because words matter. Because words are a creative force. Because the words you choose and the words you deliberately exclude create a mood and a tone and expectations and a new reality, a fictional world that was not there before you put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard.

Words fashion characters—people—and places and events out of nothing. And your word choices are the elements that frame in your world—its setting and people, its physical laws and social mores, its colors and sounds and scents. Your words create a world’s history, its wars and achievements and failures. With words, you create every single moment—big and small, grand and humble—of every event and every person and every object that inhabits your fictional world.

Your words create connections between all the story elements, like thousands of strands of a single web. Without those connections, your story world can fall apart at the lightest puff of wind.

Your words create foundations for every story event to stand on. Without a strong foundation, the entire story—the entire world—can collapse.

Your words create people who feel, who cry and rage and love and hate. Your words make readers respond, both physically and emotionally, as if they feel that rage and love and hate.

Your words focus a lens so that the story world and its details are made clear. So clear that every small component necessary to the story world can be examined even as anything that doesn’t belong in your world is given no attention whatsoever, is ignored as if it doesn’t exist because it truly does not exist in the world you’ve created.

A reader may be fighting off a disease or waiting news about a job interview. Another reader may be holed up in a hotel miles away from home as a hurricane barrels toward her unprotected house. Still another may be graduating college with no idea what he’ll do the following week or month or year.

But your story doesn’t focus on those issues or the latest war or the winner of a TV reality show. Your story focuses on your story world and on the adventures of the people who live there, and your story must be strong enough to overcome the outside forces that seek to steal the reader’s attention.

Your words frame the boundaries of your story world, allowing the reader to freely wander without risk of getting lost or straying into other worlds. (Which is one reason you don’t want to remind readers of other stories or songs as they read your story. You want readers to remain inside your fictional world, not be transported, even momentarily, to another world.)

Your words bring a world in all its glory to life. And the more accurate your words, the more clearly defined the world. A clearly defined world, even a dark or disturbing world, invites exploration. And that’s exactly what you want—readers exploring and getting lost in your fictional world.

You might hear advice that says that every single word is vital to a novel and you might hear seemingly contrary advice that says not to sweat the small stuff. I lean toward the every-word-is-vital camp. Actually, I stand on the outer edges of that camp, feet firmly inside but a pinkie finger held outside, knowing the importance of individual words as well as how combinations of words can make or break a story, can direct its tone and feel and rhythms, how words can work together to create a setting or action scene or thought so fitting that when it’s added to the whole, it can only enhance the unbreakable, cohesive unit, and yet at the same recognizing that a writer can’t spend dozens of hours on every single sentence, pruning and buffing until it is perfected.

Some sentences require such time and attention, others do not. Yes, if you include them, they’d better be important in terms of meaning or necessary for rhythm or effect. But not every sentence needs a dozen hours of editing or perfecting. Some sentences can be serviceable without a lot of attention.

Through writing experience and familiarity with words, we will know that some sentences simply work. Often these are the ones that convey information, those that tell, or those that serve as bridges, connections, between other sentences.

Many times sentences of this type need no embellishment. Need no fancy verbs. Need no adjectives or adverbs describing how or why or when.

Such sentences need no buildup or gilding.

An example—

David opened the door.

If the sentence with David opening the door is a bridge between two other sentences and needs no special attention drawn to it, you don’t want to build it up, giving it more importance than is necessary. You don’t want readers thinking there’s something special about him opening the door unless there is something special about him opening the door. Some actions are straightforward with no subtext, no hidden meanings.

Don’t spend hours crafting a workhorse sentence into a thoroughbred when there’s no call to do so. Simply make sure the sentence says what it needs to without including elements it doesn’t need, make sure word choices are accurate in terms of meaning and fit for the character and era and genre, and make sure it flows with surrounding sentences.

Simple declarative sentences may need no more attention than this. If, however, you have a half dozen of them in a row, you still have work ahead of you. Try combining sentences so they don’t all end up with the same rhythm or feel.

You may even want to combine sentences to add repetition or emphasis. Using a couple of sentences from our earlier examples, we have—

Wind whistled through the willows and whispered through the elms.

This may be the sentence you were looking for as you messed around with the wind blowing through the trees.

But maybe it still isn’t right. Maybe the scene needs more than a simple wind.

A howling wind whipped through the trees.

We’ve now switched the emphasis from the type of tree and toward the type of wind. We’ve also repeated the W in a third word, playing up the consonance. Is this finally the right wording? Does it do what we want it to do without adding anything we don’t want or need?

If we say the sentence aloud, the accent is on whipped. And the sentence sounds pretty good.

But we still have one more consideration.

What about that prepositional phrase used to end the sentence? Do we want that phrase in the most prominent sentence position?

Maybe not. Maybe the sentence needs something more pointed, something more direct or absolute.

A howling wind rattled the leaves.

How does this one work? It actually loses the emphasis on the verb—the spoken rattled doesn’t get the same stress that whipped gets. But it is specific and even more detailed than the wind whipping through the trees.

What we can see from looking at all these examples is that a variety of iterations can work, depending on the needs of the scene and on the surrounding sentences.

Any one of these sentences might work for your needs, but it’s likely that one would be a better fit than most, depending on what effect you need to create and what information you need to convey and what other words and sentences surround the sentence.

Beyond Declarations and Connecting Sentences

I pointed out that simple declarative sentences often need little tweaking; you may simply use common and familiar words and be done with it. If David is opening the door, that may be all the information the reader needs.

But when you do need to include more, even for the simplest of actions or motions or even for setting details, give us more. Make the sentence work. Make it show motion or deepen tone or ratchet up the emotional factor for readers.

A new example—

David walked around his office, waiting for the phone to ring.

This sentence might work, but it’s fairly common. You might find it or something like it in thousands of stories. Still, the details may be all you need. But if you expect the sentence to change the reader’s emotions or have her sitting up and paying attention, the sentence could use some tweaking.

Let’s imagine David’s son has been kidnapped. And let’s show the reader some of his anguish.

A few options for changes, building on one another—

David walked around his office, waiting for the phone to ring.

David paced around his office, waiting for the phone to ring.

David paced from window to desk, waiting for the phone to ring.

David paced from window to desk, willing his phone to ring.

David paced from window to desk, begging his phone to ring.

David trembled before his desk, begging his phone to ring.

David trembled before his desk, pleading with God, waiting for the phone to ring.

David trembled before his desk, pleading with God, demanding that his phone ring now.

David trembled before his desk, pleading with God, demanding that his phone ring before he inhaled his next breath.

A simple declarative sentence becomes one that reveals emotion.

Once again, any of these examples might work for a scene’s needs, but you should understand how changing words can affect tone, mood, and emotion. Can change the direction of a story. Can deepen a reader’s ties to characters.

You’ll want to truly grasp the reality that words can shape stories and every element within them.

You’ll want to give each sentence of every scene the attention it needs so that the story’s foundations serve to support the story events you erect on top of them and so the story itself is both clear and solid. You don’t want to overdo, spending hours on sentences that need only moments, but you don’t want to skim over any sentence either. Not when you rewrite and edit. Not when you’re cutting out the excess and sharpening details.

There are so many, many options for each sentence in your novels, and so many factors that go into the decisions regarding word choice, that you’ve got to develop instincts and shortcuts and know-how to help you write your sentences.

The acts of writing and rewriting will help you develop the skills you need for crafting sentences, for choosing the right words for the circumstances and doing so economically, giving significant sentences the time they need while taking less time with other sentences. But being aware of both the importance of word choice and understanding the impact a single word can make will also help. Now that you know you should be considering word choices for every single sentence, you have no excuse for not doing so. You have no excuse not to look at every sentence at least once as you rewrite and edit with an eye to making it the best it can be for its purpose in your story, even if those purposes are many or complex or just plain simple.

Choose the right words and write compelling, entertaining, fiction.

***

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

10 Responses to “Zeroing in on Words”

  1. Martha says:

    Wow wow wow…..this is outstanding. The best explanation I’ve ever read about writing precisely (and I’ve read A LOT!) I’m passing this post along to friends!

  2. I think many of us inherently think about this issues but it is truly valuable to have them stated in such a cogent manner. So thank you for your insight and passion ;) I’m in the middle of my debut novel and will definitely refer back to this piece when I begin editing/rewriting.

    One point I’d like to examine more closely is that of referring to or suggesting other works (books, songs, movies) that will pull the reader out of the story. While I generally agree with what you’ve written, I also feel that such references can sometime work in the writer’s favor. Something that is so familiar to people that it can evoke a predicable emotion might actually cover a lot of ground. If I’m writing a scene set in the 1970s, for instance, and want to put my reader there, I might include all sorts of period references including songs. Same with nursery rhymes or movie titles in other settings/situations. It can serve as a sort of literary shorthand, no?

    Again, thanks so much for such a generous piece.

    • Keith, it was my pleasure to write this one. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and adding to the discussion. You’re so right in saying that writers think about words and their impact—words and the creative power in them are probably the great draws that pull most of us into the profession. We simply love words and the creations that come from them.

      I’ve been meaning to work up an article on using poems and song lyrics and cultural references in fiction, but just haven’t taken the time to do it yet. While of course writers can refer to other works (within reason, given copyright law), and while such references can definitely be literary shorthand, as you’ve said, there are drawbacks to using the recognizable words of others in your stories. Can I promise to address this topic in the near future and leave it at that for now? I’m afraid the issues require more attention than I can provide in a single comment.

  3. Kat says:

    I’ve been struggling with the issue of filtering through the viewpoint character without being able to quite put into words (hah) what was going wrong! Thanks for the “aha!” moment. I’m going to go back through my latest chapter with an eye towards removing some of that filtering.

    • Kat, I’m glad to have provided the “aha.” Sometimes all we need is that little nudge, a word or two, that has us seeing our answer. I’ve got an article about Filters in Fiction that deals specifically with filter words that provides more information on that topic.

      Thanks for taking the time to let me know you were here.

  4. hayde says:

    Great post!
    One of the things that I’d like to add is that voice also has to be taken into consideration when choosing words, especially when using free indirect style of the third person narration. For instance, if we say: “David walked around his office, waiting for the stupid phone to ring”, we get a different feel for the character and situation. Just by adding the word “stupid”, we start to form a more specific idea of who David is as a person without having to state it in “telling form” (David was an immature hothead).

    • Hayde, I agree. Voice and genre and character age and experience and so many other issues are important concerns for word choice. Each deserves an article of its own.

      Thanks for the example that nails a character’s emotions and/or personality.

  5. Penny Barber says:

    Echoing Martha’s wows! I must have written a million words trying to explain these concepts to authors. Never have I come close to the addressing why and how with so much clarity, depth, and simplicity. I’ll share this often.

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