Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

More Than Words

By Matthew Cranford

2001, Matthew Cranford 

Words.  Where would writers be without words?  Okay, yes, that is a seemingly pointless rhetorical question, but the trick is in how words are used, both in phraseology and in any given character’s vernacular.  The imagery of a story, including the setting, the attitude, and the background of each moment, is critically impacted by the author’s choice of words.  Including subtle imagery in every line can mean the difference between a short story and a long novel, but more importantly, it can mean the difference between comprehension and confusion to the reader.

To avoid either boring or confusing the reader, the writer must make an effort to keep every line of text easy to understand without dumbing it down or omitting crucial adjectives and details.  It would be extremely pretentious of me to assume that I can point out good and bad examples of effective phraseology in existent writing, so I’ll just make some up.

            When the Prince saw the Princess, he was surprised to see her in such disarray.

So, that gets the point across, but in a sentence like this, the reader should already be familiar with the Prince’s and the Princess’ names, and the trite usage of Prince and Princess could and should be avoided.  Beyond that, the structure, although understandable, is redundant in the use of see and later the use of saw.  In a sentence such as this, the comma does more to take away from the readability than it does to add to it.  A more effective phrasing might be:

            Prince Kirby was caught off guard when he saw Morella in such disarray.

Now we have taken care of the comma without changing the meaning of the sentence.  However, commas can also work for the writer, creating more opportunity to add imagery.  This sentence is easily understood, but can be still better with more descriptive words and some helpful insights into the mind of the character.

Partially out of shock, but mostly out of utter disgust, Kirby vomited at the sight of the ravished remains of Morella.

When one adds detail, it is important not to go overboard.  A sentence that is too wordy can be more distracting than a sentence that is as bland as butterless popcorn.  An example of overkill:

Out of disgust, shock, and utter horror, with a touch of vehemence thrown in there for good measure, Prince Kirby–a man of great reputation and fortitude–displayed his human foibles by vomiting profusely at the sight of his once cherished and beautiful Morella--now nothing more than a ravaged and lifeless body.

Actually, after I read over that rather lengthy sentence again, it doesn’t seem so bad (minus the whimsical comment about vehemence).  However, it is entirely unnecessary to mention that Morella was once cherished and beautiful, as that should have already been established earlier in the story.  The same can be said of the description of Prince Kirby.

In examining the progression of the example sentences above, it is important to note that the attitudes and expressions become clearer with every sentence.  The more detail that is added, the more the reader will feel as if he knows exactly what the characters are going through.  Details make it easier for the reader to relate to the characters and to their situations.  But again, too many details, especially those of the unnecessary variety, will lose a reader’s interest; all the hours spent putting those words on paper will have been in vain, if the reader chooses to read something else–something that will keep his or her attention.

Attitude and tone are also developed by the vernacular and vocabulary of each individual character.  For example, a comical character may have a limited vocabulary with very predictable yet irrational dialog, or he could have an unusually expansive catalog of terms at his disposal, and may chose to display this vocabulary without warning at the worst possible time.  Likewise, indicators of background -- such as morals, temperament, and education of a character -- are often displayed by his choice of words and ability to communicate with other characters.

It is important to include subtle differences in dialect, whether the story is based in reality or in the realm of fantasy.  It goes without saying that in works of a fantasy author has more liberty in the language of the writing, including the creation of new languages, the nuances and particulars of dialects, and even the in’s and out’s of the grammar and dialog structure.  But this liberty can become a burden when the author is trying to convey a message to the reader.  It is very easy for a writer to become too involved in those very same nuances and particulars, and lose the focus of the story he is trying to tell.

Here’s something else that goes without saying:  if the characters are to have impressive and varying vocabularies, the author is going to need to have at her disposal a much more comprehensive knowledge of words than the sum of the characters they have created.

And so here we have another example of bad form–in two consecutive paragraphs I have stated that which goes without saying.  If these things truly go without saying, which they do, then I am just exercising my right to lengthen this copy with pointless words, a right which is devastating when employed, as it serves only to lengthen the appearance of the copy without actually adding anything of substance or relevance.  Be aware at all times of what is being written to avoid rambling and to keep the reader reading.

One guideline you should follow above all others: When it comes to your own work, don’t listen to anybody else until you’ve listened to yourself.  Do what seems best for your own characters and your own writing, and then see if it fits in what the rest of the literary world deems acceptable.  And if it’s not in sync (damn that boy band, they’ve destroyed a perfectly good phrase!) with the worlds standards, who cares?  It’s yours; enjoy it.