I maintain that it’s the details that affect the success of a story much more than the concept, the plot, or any of the big picture items. Whether it’s a tone of sincerity or just accuracy in the mundane, the difference between a good book and a great book are the small things.
Word choice in particular. Anyone who has given me something to read has found most of my focus oriented around deleting and altering sentence format and style. I am exactly the sort of editor to cut the word “stupid” and yet ignore the fact that your character is now walking in the park despite having died twenty pages ago.
It’s not necessarily a good thing. In fact, I’d argue you want to seek out readers who do not do this, at least not in the earlier stages.
That being said, I’ve developed an eye for the way that small words change the mood of the entire scene, and it’s not as simple as the anti-adverb coalition wants to make it. Though the balance between big picture and little picture details is important, today I’m only going to focus on the more ignored side.
Word choice can change everything about a description without requiring alteration of the events. It is powerful because it is always an option, something that is easily fallen back on when the author needs to fix something, but wants the story to stay the way it is.
This is why many “rules” supplied to us by creative writing teachers center around inane things like “don’t use said,” and “beware passive-sentences!” Despite being irritatingly exaggerated and seemingly miniscule when it comes to their importance, this commonly repeated advice does has a point and a huge benefit.
However, it’s not so much about bad or good. Instead, it’s useful to see words as “influential” versus “supportive,” a concept that will hopefully lead to a lot more understanding when it comes to seemingly inane editing comments.
Most words are influential. They, by nature, sway the tone, atmosphere, and general feeling of the reader to the intended direction. Supportive words, however, are better defined as neutral, sustaining the tone, atmosphere, and general feeling to keep going with whatever it has been so far.
Take for instance the difference between “screamed” and “said.”
Screamed is influential. When used, it illustrates a specific context. Said, however, is supportive. It can mean anything we want it to. While we can only scream something in a limited number of ways, the way we can “say” something is infinite. I can scream when I’m upset or scared or maybe even excited, but less so when I’m calm or tired. I can say something while terrified, upset, calm, angry, happy, or pretty much any emotion I might be experiencing.
Supportive words tend to be, what I call, base words. They are often used in the definition of their synonyms, accompanied with an adjective. Screamed, for instance, might be clarified as, “he said loudly.” Things like “walk,” “sit,” “look,” and anything else you might find in a “Dick and Jane” book will often be supportive.
As anyone who’s ever been in a creative writing class is aware, the concept of whether or not to use said is a fairly heavily debated one, teachers often commenting to “never” or “only.” This, of course, causes a lot of confusion because, like anything absolute, neither never nor only is correct.
How do you know when to use the base word and when to come up with something more creative? Most commonly, and off topic, it has to do with how many times it’s been used in the past. Essentially, don’t over do it.
More to the point, teachers will further that someone should only use said because the tone should be clear in the dialogue. This, of course, is ridiculous because there’s lots of ways for text to be interpreted, which is why your text messages to your girlfriend always get you yelled at.
Sometimes, and this is an important technique to utilize, we can alter a text to hint at what we want, which solves the problem of having to tell them fairly well.
Yet, for those of us who don’t want to do that, it comes down to a simple question of why is the word said, or lack thereof, a problem?
“Said,” being a supportive word, adds nothing to the conversation. It benefits the writer when he wants to either a) tell the reader who is talking or b) lengthen the time between two pieces of dialogue. It supports whatever has already been indicated and does not conflict with the interpreted tone.
Other words, however, influence the reader, introducing a new tone to the situation. This can be beneficial and negative depending on the situation. As a consequence, it may contradict an original assumption, making the sentence jarring. In fact, there doesn’t have to be an original assumption for this to eject the reader. If they had none, the sudden introduction still throws them for a loop.
Positively, the influence persuades the reader to read it the correct, or at least intended, way in the simplest manner possible, whereas a supportive sentence doesn’t.
Take, for instance, the phrase, “Hello.”
A dog hops up onto a man’s lap. We can say:
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” he laughed.
The first leaves some mystery and doesn’t clarify how he is feeling about a dog in his lap. It can be assumed, based on the context, that he isn’t mad. But, on that note, it doesn’t really indicate any actual opinion. It supports the scene by allowing it to go in which ever direction the author may lead. It does, as a positive, make the scene appear more organic. On the other hand, the second announces the man’s clear opinion on the subject, which, as I’ve discussed before, is always more interesting than no opinion. Though the first doesn’t make the man unlikable, the second influences the audience’s feelings much faster. We know he likes dogs without having to specifically say it. Showing, not telling.
Sometimes you’ll want the first and sometimes you’ll want the second.
Often, the use of the word said is best when any other opinion tweaks the events in an undesirable way.
The most common example I give of this is a story in which twelve children are introduced through nothing but dialogue.
First, it must be noted that the author was clearly trying to come up for a synonym for said in each sentence. This is an important factor because, in writing, the audience should never (as a default) be thinking about what the author is doing. The problem from not using said comes from this very instance of the story not being organic and simply looking like the author is trying to come up with more than one word.
The sentence, however, that stayed in my mind was:
“‘How would you know? You’re like twelve,’” she informed him.
Informed is an influential word that alters my image of her facial expression. In this case, it guided me in a direction I didn’t want to go.
Firstly, informed is not technically correct. She was not explaining his age to him, she was mocking him. This sort of thing we can over look because, hey, the author is entitled to have some sarcasm here or there. The main focus of the issue is that, while I pictured the sentence as blunt and disgusted, informing made it feel condescendingly smooth. It changed the motivation of why she was telling him, her tone, and her facial expression. In this case, it was in a manner that ruined the humor in the sentence.
Influential words can be dangerous because it now restricts and limits the mood. Readers are more imaginative and better at organically filling in the blanks than what an author can explain. Supportive words allow for more leeway, giving the author the reader’s benefit of the doubt. These base choices leave out details, meaning that the writer does not need to think of them or admit to them.
That being said, attempting to waddle in indecision is a common mistake for an author. Books are supposed to be influential, the writer is supposed to tell the reader what the creator is thinking, and, in all honesty, influential words are much more interesting.
Knowing which words are supportive and influential and what affect that has on the sentence, description, story, and tone, allows the author to really recognize why he, or someone else, doesn’t like his sentence. Have a problem with a moment? Consider the influence or lack thereof. Changing one word can switch directions without any effort.
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