Monday, July 23, 2018

The Power of Word Choice in Fiction

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The wrong word can carry the wrong impression and cause the reader to make the wrong assumption.

I ran a workshop several years back where the attendees did exercises designed to make them consider how they described specific emotions from a particular point of view character. They all did very well, but some interesting things surfaced as they read their samples out loud. Certain words triggered certain assumptions.

The emotions and characters were randomized, and one writer drew the unlucky pairing to write about an “optimistic criminal.” It was clear in the resulting scene that the POV character knew he was going to get away with something, but when the time came to name the POV character, everyone guessed some type of law enforcement—even though the POV character was clearly stealing.

 What gave the “readers” this impression?

One word.


Are Your Words Misleading the Reader?

The writer had used the word “team” to describe the criminal’s friends who were coming to help/aid/save him. It’s an accurate word, but “team” carries with it a positive vibe. “Team” is law enforcement, military, the good guys. And “team” is what was picked up on despite all the clear words that said “criminal.”

Someone suggested “crew” as an alternative, because crew has a criminal vibe (unless you’re talking about boats of course). If the POV character had been waiting for his crew there would have been no doubt that he was a criminal.

For a more modern slang, had the word “squad” been used, I suspect readers would have been torn between military and a group of people under 30.

Either word on its own can work in either situation, but combined with the other details of the scene, a picture emerged in the readers’ minds. They made assumptions based on what was read. It didn’t matter that their assumptions were wrong. The writer put those assumptions there.

(Here's more on little things holding your story back)

So how does this affect your current WIP?

When we write, we know what every word refers to and what it means. There is no ambiguity because we’re clear on what’s going on and being said. If we use “team” to describe a group of criminals, then we read it that way, even if others may not.
  • Are there any ambiguous or misleading words that might cause readers to make the wrong assumption?
  • Do you have any words that imply something else, even though they’re also legitimate for how you use them?
A word might have a certain definition, but if the most popular and widely used one is not what you mean, odds are the readers will get the wrong idea.

In the workshop, there was one scene that was written from an old woman’s POV. The first word used was Edith. I immediately thought of an old woman, and the author followed this right up by mentioning a cane. Two clues that told me who this person was without ever having to say “she was an old woman.”

But if the name had been Tiffani, would “old woman” have come to mind? Probably not. The cane would have been a strange detail indeed, and would have likely made me pause. Was Tiffani injured? Blind? But not old.

(Here's more on 14 words that are hurting your writing) 

Try reading your work with this in mind.
  • Does your POV use words that fit their gender? Race? Age group? Education? Religious beliefs?
  • Does the descriptive words convey the ideas, tone, mood of what you’re trying to say?
  • Are there ambiguous words that could have several different meanings?

Here's an example from one of my own novels:

Word choice can characterize as well. I once edited a line to better reflect the point of view character’s attitude about the world. He’s the future ruler of an empire, so he tends to think in terms of “ownership” about that empire. For him it was:
  • My Empire, not the empire
  • My Guard, not the guards (as his Guards are unique to him and not like the rest)
On the other side, my second protagonist is an outsider to this world, even though she’s lived there half her life. She rarely refers to someone by name (unless they’re a good friend or have no other moniker), but title or role. For her, it was:
  • The commander (not Commander Xiomo)
  • The inquisitor (not Inquisitor Tavaris)
  • The sentinel (not whatever their name might be)
How they refer to the people and things around them is directly tired to how they see themselves in that world.

Due to the nature of this particular story, such word choice was critical to both the voices, and the characters, so it was a strong example of how a single word can change a reader’s perspective or assumptions about what’s going on in a scene.

One word can make a difference. You want every word to draw your world and your story the way you see it. Because you really don’t get a second chance to make a first assumption.

Have you ever made the wrong assumption in a story? Have you ever caused a reader to make the wrong assumption? 

*Originally published April 2011. Last updated July 2018.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great post. Yeah, I think about this all the time when I write. You can have the right word so as to speak, and yet it is totally the wrong word for the character or context or POV or culture etc etc. There are so many reasons why a word can be wrong. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  2. I love this post. Seeing how subtle details like the tone of a word or the expectations of a name or prop can alter a reader's perceptions is one of my favourite exercises!

  3. Great post-- I was just thinking about this the other day. When I'm stuck on finding the right word to convey what I want to say, it can take a long time, and it's hard to move on with a so-so word when you know there can be better. My current struggle: the right word for someone who takes something (in nature, let's say a random berry). My immediate word: recipient. But that's not right, this person didn't have something given to him (or did he? does that count in nature?). It can be hard to continue when you are stuck on a word!

    Thanks for the post! I always find your blog helpful!

  4. I live by my thesaurus. I've been stuck so many times. The one in Word is good, but sometimes I have to search through lists before I hit the right one.

    Between crew and team, I would have said gang.

  5. I love this post. Great, very useful information here. I need to look over my WIP for this very thing. Thanks!!!

  6. I think I'd have gone with gang as well. Crew suggests a work group, like construction. Gang is either criminal or a close knit group of boys (like Little Rascals).

    I love my thesaurus. And I completely understand how hard it is to find the right word. Another book I use to help me find the word I want is my Flip Dictionary. Some entries are like a thesaurus, but there are lists (types of fabric, military ranks) and descriptions.

  7. Yeah, I've been facing this in the rough sketch I've done of a NEW! Shiny! Idea! that hit me. I'm not concerned about it yet, but a verb I use (and has nice alliteration with the context) has 2 meanings. I mean one, but the context pulls out the other meaning, which makes the perspective character sound like a villain.

    The verb? "to take", as a transitive. With the direct object as a person. And an indirect object won't fit in the sentence as written.

    Yeah, SO not my intended meaning, there.

  8. It was really interesting to see to see how certain words made all the difference in the perception of who the paragraph was about!

    I plan to read some shorter work out loud with other writers in an attempt to ensure that I am actually saying what I mean.

    Thank you so much again!

  9. Love this concept! On the flip side, I really enjoy the idea of using a specific word on PURPOSE in order to mislead the reader.
    For example, if the thieves really are a group of police officers, but you don't want the reader to find that out until later, using 'crew' or 'gang' might keep them off your trail until you're ready to make the big reveal.

  10. Tabitha: Most welcome!

    Paul: Same here. I just love the subtly of it all.

    Melissa: When I know I need a better word and don't want to slow down my flow, I just make a note like (need word) or (need name) or whatever the detail is. That way I can keep writing and deal with it later when I have time.

    Anne: Gang is a good one! I can't believe none of us thought of that.

    Dawn: Most welcome!

    Jaleh: Gang to me can also be an urban gang, much more "gangster" and thug-like than a cat burglar crew. Oo a flip dictionary. That sounds handy.

    Carradee: Oopsy hehe. Yeah, I've done that. What you want to say just so comes across wrong. Those are toughies.

    Elizabeth: It was, wasn't it? I loved that about that exercise. and you're most welcome ;)

    Candace: Oh, totally, that can be fun. Mix that in with a few other subtle but there clues and you could really fool them.

  11. Gang was my first thought when I was reading that description. Great post, and I love that old woman/young woman picture.

  12. Fascinating. Thanks for pointing this out. Things to think about as I continue to write and edit. Ty!

  13. "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." --Mark Twain

    1. Absolutely :) It was hard not to use that quote.