Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A boy and a dog

By Joe Moore

boy-dog I got an email the other day from a beginning writer who was working on her first book. She had read some of my novels and enjoyed them, and she asked if I had any advice on helping her strengthen her writing. I could have given her many answers to that question including creating an outline, researching carefully, developing strong characters, accuracy, compelling plot, etc. But what I decided to tell her was that the best way to strengthen her writing was to choose the right words.

I know that may sound almost too basic. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the right words in the right order can make for good writing. But I suggested that once she completed her first draft and started the rewriting process, she spend time considering if she needed an alternative to her action and descriptive words. I’m not advocating a thesaurus-intensive approach to writing, just a conscious effort to consider if there’s a better, stronger, more visual alternative to power and descriptive words.

If you strip away all the words that you can’t change such as proper nouns, character’s names, conjunctions, prepositions, and other necessary parts of speech, what’s left are words that the writer can consider changing to strengthen the story.

And here lies the true craft of storytelling: choosing the right word.

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is like the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Choosing the right word helps create a stronger visual image in the reader’s mind that should closely resemble the image in the writer’s mind. And the closer those two visions synchronize, the more intimate, meaningful and thrilling the experience can be for the reader. The first words to fall target for change are descriptive words.

Here’s a short exercise in choosing the right descriptive words. It’s a one-sentence story I call A Boy and A Dog. As the writer, I see the action clearly in my mind, but do you see the same scene?

The dog ran toward the boy.

Pretty simple, right? Do you have a clear image of the dog? The boy? Do you see what’s happening with the action? Maybe, but there’s a great deal of room for interpretation. Our collective visions are not synchronized because the descriptive words—dog, ran, boy--are vague and general. Let’s try again.

The big dog ran toward the small boy.

Any better? Do you see the same dog and boy in your mind that I do? Are we talking about a poodle or a collie? Boxer or Doberman? Does small mean that the boy is short or young? Let’s revise.

The big black dog ran toward the small frightened child.

OK, now we’re using some better descriptive words. Are you starting to get the same picture in your mind that I am? Can you see the big black dog? Is it the same dog and child I envision as I write the story?

OK, let’s get serious about using descriptive words.

The pit bull charged the screaming toddler.

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Watch for Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo, Julie Kramer, Anne Hawkins, and Grant Blackwood. And coming July 26. James Scott Bell joins the Kill Zone as our new fulltime Sunday blogger.

7 comments:

  1. Good point. Choosing stronger words and eliminating unnecessary words really spruce up a manuscript.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  2. Excellent advice, Joe. "Pit bull" is better than "dog" and "toddler" more suggestive than "child". And the adjectives "big" and "small" are no longer needed. Specificity rocks.

    Chandler used to type on half sheets, and work those words before moving on. As a result there's no flab at all in his books...but a lot of lightning.

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  3. Oh yes. That last one certainly paints a picture. Similarly "The poodle toddled towards the smiling baby."

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  4. The toddler, suddenly possessed of super human strength spun his tiny body like miniature tornado and landed a reverse hook kick on the pitbulls snout. The snarling jaws suddenly flapped in a whimpering yelp and the beast crashed to the ground, skidding against the gravel face first. The child planted one foot solidly against the pavement and shot his left leg straight into the air then brought it crashing down in a hammer-like axe kick against the wounded creatures spine, just below the shoulders where the thick neck muscles tapered off. The impact resounded with a sharp crack.

    The beast convulsed, its eyes rolled searching in vain for its assailant. It let out another whimper, then breathed its last.

    The two year old glanced around, no one had seen. He toddled back to the street, climbed onto his Big Wheel and peddled home, thankful his mom had not thrown away all those old Power Rangers tapes.

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  5. I'm glad everyone agrees how important it is to choose the right word. And, Basil, well, we're all starting to worry about you up there in the north country, buddy. :-)

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  6. The sun hasn't gone down in six weeks, and won't for another two months.

    It's amazing the stuff you can think up when you don't sleep for a few weeks. 8-D

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  7. Good reminder, Joe. When I critique manuscripts by new writers, one of the most frequent remarks I put in is to use "fresher" words, aka the right words. Many times writers will use garden-variety words to express something that they see clearly in their own minds. But if the words don't convey that image to the reader, it doesn't work. That doesn't mean we should overload the prose with punchy verbs and sharp-sounding nouns. It's all a balance.

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