Saturday, November 19, 2016

Don't Waste Your Words by Victoria Chatham

To summarize for the round-robin topic: How does wording choice develop a story's character? How do you use and select your words?

I suspect all authors have had those wonderful moments of pure inspiration. That brilliant phrase that jolts you awake at 3 a.m. a line of dialogue sparkling with wit or characters so real you can feel them. You write as fast as you can to transcribe the images into words on the page. But what words do you use?

My word usage depends very much not only on the characters themselves but in what period I have set them. Contemporary settings require the use of very different words to those I would use in a historical setting. When I build a character, I consider what their family was like and what education they received, whether formal or not. Is my character a 19th century Lord or Lady? Or is he a cowboy? Two sets of characters but requiring totally different words to describe them. The skill here is to pick the right words and only constant practice can serve, both from reading and extending your own vocabulary as you read.

We all know the devil is in the details, especially if you do not want a one-dimensional character. Picking a detail and embellishing it to paint a word picture takes time and balance. In my first ever attempt at a romance novel, a contemporary set in England, I wrote that ‘rain fell on London like a dirty sheet’. However, my critique partner pointed out that a dirty sheet was hardly romantic.

The same applied to ‘sunshine slid down the wall like melting butter’. My critiquer’s comment? Ugh, messy imagery. So what you as the writer might think descriptive may actually convey something entirely different to your reader. And just so you know, both phrases were deleted. Choosing the right words to convey what you see is the art and skill of writing. but then there is also the danger of going too far and boring your reader if you have tried to be too clever. When teaching an introductory creative class I encourage my students to use similes, but sparingly.

Tools I use for choosing words are Marc McCutcheon’s excellent book ‘Building Believable Characters’ which includes forty-eight words for describing noses. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have penned several books together beginning with ‘The Emotion Thesaurus’. Both books offer lists of words if you find yourself coming up short on a character’s details. If I feel I am coming close to repeating myself, I look for synonyms. Is there another word I can use without being a lazy writer? By that, I mean the buzzwords and phrases that crop up time and again particularly in romance novels.

In one book I read by a very well known NYT best-selling author, the heroine ‘shattered’ so many times I thought the poor girl, like Humpty Dumpty, could never be put together again. ‘Going over the edge’ and ‘her toes curled in her slippers’ are also done to death clichés. There are times when a cliché is the exact right combination of words to use, at others less so.

As writers we have vivid imaginations, it’s where a story comes from. But then comes the task of putting those stories into words and making the most of what tools we have to string those words together in a way that best entertains our readers.
I hope you’ll visit these other fine writers for their opinions.


  1. Your comment on clichés hit a nerve with me. Not that I'm not as guilty as any when I'm writing. I have to get stern with myself when I edit. But as a reader they really turn me off. Barbara Cartland, God rest her soul, was a best selling author with dozens of books to her credit, but I couldn't bear to read them after awhile because of all the shattering, sighing, flying off into the heavens etc.

  2. I liked the descriptions your critique partner didn't. Especially the one about the rain. You are wise to set your characters in their correct period using details of language, etc. And thanks for the tip about "Building Believable Characters." Sounds like it is a book that belongs in every writer's toolkit.

  3. I think your comment about wording suiting the character is very important. I find it is difficult to write different types of heroines and heroes because I think mine tend to overlap in characteristics. It's hard to develop new, independent ones.

  4. I find that I have pet words in every story I write. Once I notice them, I will do a search and highlight so that I can go through and massage the sections that need massaging.

    I agree with Rhobin about it being hard to develop new, independent ones. As I said in my post, I frequently have to beat back my inner voice that wants to insert my own personality onto my characters. Part of the joy of writing is getting to know these "new" characters and watching them evolve. :)


  5. Interesting post. I enjoyed your process for choosing vocabulary for your characters and the tools you use.