A Storytelling Serial
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“There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead blue-bottle on the window-sill.”
One word. It was the start of a lifelong dictionary addiction. Miss Humphreys assigned C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to my fifth-grade reading group and instructed us to write down every term we didn’t know and then look it up in the dictionary. At the end of each chapter, we were to hand in a written list of words and their definitions.
“Blue-bottle.” Chapter one. The first word I didn’t know in the book. I’ve remembered it evermore.
This assignment also began a devotion to the Narnia series that remains unshakeable no matter how many times I’ve read the books, regardless how many other brilliant fantasies I’ve been introduced to, and despite its deep religious symbolism that has nothing to do with my attachment to a world beyond my own.
A few days ago I was listening to a writing podcast I usually enjoy. The guest was a well-known fiction author in his genre, discussing where writers should spend their time and what isn’t worth an investment of energy. He advised we focus on telling the story without obsessing over individual words. “Readers will remember the story. They won’t remember the words.”
This reader remembers both, and I often remember the story only because of the words. Mediocre, pedestrian verbiage makes little impression on me. Ordinary words create ordinary, forgettable stories.
Perhaps, using one of my mother’s favorite phrases, I missed my calling. I probably should have been a lexicographer; but despite my dictionary fixation, by the time I finally discovered language is living and changing, and Noah Webster wasn’t the last practitioner of a dead profession, I was too old for that type of career remake.
So instead, I now fight for words in a different way. Hence, my business name: Words for Stories. Choose the words, and you choose the story. Change the words, and you change the story. Words aren’t merely important in the same way as skin and bones; words are the DNA of writing.
Consider Genre and Audience
I belong to several online writing groups; and in their eagerness to be helpful, members like to post links to articles such as “Eleven Rules for Good Writing.” Unfortunately, those pieces are often published by content writers, many from a copywriting background. They understand snappy and persuasive. Other such advice comes from journalists, who value brevity and summary leads. In their worlds, good writing means easy reading:
But will short, fast, and easy be best for your particular story? Does generic advice to write as concisely and simply as Hemingway serve the world of your readers? Are you producing to-the-point content, marketing copy, business material, how-to guides, technical instruction, or factual information? Or are you trying to stimulate imagination and critical thinking? Does your story ask to unfold slowly, richly, thickly?
And do you hope to challenge readers—at least a smidgen? Add color and variety to the page?
Before you adopt advice wholesale, take a close look at who’s giving it and what type of writing it’s intended for.
Stretch and Learn
My multiple dictionaries and word guides abound with possibilities for expression, and word entries are added to online lexicons at a rate I’ll never be able to follow.
But that doesn’t stop me from trying to improve my vocabulary on a daily basis. I read and collect new terms constantly. And the best way to learn anything is to see it used, and then use it myself, in context. Only application creates the connections required to remember new facts.
Does this mean I throw words into my writing as a learning activity, or because I can? Of course not. Expanded knowledge doesn’t change the need for every term to fit the story, the genre, the audience.
Still, to more precisely convey meaning, tone, or style, I won’t eschew choosing a word that’s less common or contains more syllables over one that’s more familiar or uses less letters. Wordy or bloviated writing particularly irritates me (especially when it’s my own), so I’d rather use one longer word that is spot on than several short words that are approximate.
And why should I be limited by the same boring words ubiquitous in the repetitious onslaught of written text filling our modern lives? Even in a society drawn to the familiarity of fast food, many enjoy diverse fare. McDonald’s has a role in restaurants and in marketing, but not in my writing. The predictability of any word menu should be a conscious choice, not one dictated by current trends.
Put Energy into Word Choice
As both a writer and a professional copyeditor, I know that when authors put all their energy into their story lines and neglect the supporting words, conscientious copyeditors often take it upon themselves to suggest better words, more evocative words, exact words. Most of the time, those suggestions motivate authors to think harder about how their word choices affect the stories they want to tell.
In a memoir I worked on recently, the author defaulted to the verb share (as in a feeling). The definition of this tired term didn’t transmit the truth of her experience, so I asked whether display might be an accurate replacement. To my delight, she countered with brandish, establishing a nuance of meaning that immediately illuminated her story and invited readers to live it as she did, not as a bland cultural trope.
Specificity is crucial to every type of story, and sometimes that comes at the cost of short and simple. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Long and unusual doesn’t necessarily provide precision, and jargon clearly communicates only to specific readers. Word length and linguistic frequency aren’t the correct criteria to determine which of the hundreds of thousands of dictionary entries will help close the gap between a writer’s intention and a reader’s perception.
Make It Memorable
The noun fly is short and simple. It’s adequate. My ten-year-old self wouldn’t have needed to look up the definition. But such a mundane object would not have remained with me for the rest of my reading life.
A dead fly? Forgettable.
A dead blowfly that is iridescent (another definition required!) blue and, when alive, laid eggs on meat or in wounds? An attention-grabbing mind picture composed of new words that ushered me into an extraordinary story and into my unending quest to see an iridescent bluebottle for myself, dead or alive.
And thanks to C. S. Lewis (or his editor), I do—every time I reread chapter one of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
How are you using words to create writing so vivid, so distinctive, and so appropriate, your readers can’t forget your stories--even if occasionally pushed to search the ease of technology or the tradition of print for definitions and expanded worlds?
Caring about your words takes time and energy, but readers will remember the result.
(By the way, the Flesch-Kincaid grade level for this post came in at 8.7. That’s supposed to make online content readable. But what matters most to me is whether I’ve said what I needed to, in the way I can say it best.)
Below, please share your thoughts about the connection of words to story. Is it a chicken-and-egg relationship, or does one matter more than the other?