Monday, January 30, 2012

Person? Place? Thing? Let's Talk About Nouns

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

"Use strong nouns and verbs." Most writers have heard this, and it's probably taped to more than one monitor as a reminder. But like so much writing advice, it's important, yet vague. Exactly what is a strong noun? How do we know what nouns are best for our writing? There is no right answer because every story will need something different. As good as this advice is, it isn't always very helpful.

It reminds me of an episode of Friends where the dumb-yet-lovable Joey wrote a letter of recommendation. To sound smart, he used the thesaurus and replaced all his "dumb" words with "smart" ones.
"They're warm, nice people with big hearts" became "They're humid, pre-possessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps."
Strong nouns, yes, but an improvement to the line? Nope.

So What is a Strong Noun?
Strong nouns are words that are specific to the item or the character. "He ran toward the tree" doesn't tell you a thing about that tree. Readers will envision a different type of tree depending on where they live, and possibly how well you've set your scene. But odds are what you have pictured in your head is different from what the reader pictures.

Seems like it really shouldn't matter that much, right? A tree is a tree. But when you're getting feedback like, "the world just didn't come alive for me" or "I really couldn't get a sense of the setting" there's a good chance you're being too vague. Strong nouns can help here.

"He ran toward the cactus" says a whole lot. Instantly you know what the setting generally looks like because a cactus grows in a specific climate. "He ran toward the oak" tells you some things, but even though it's specific, it's still vague. I bet if I lined up ten trees not everyone could pick the oak out of that lineup. (I probably couldn't, and we had some in our yard for years). This is where being specific doesn't always cut it. Yes, it's a strong noun, but it doesn't help.

How Do You Pick the Right Specific?
This is where good old fashioned point of views comes in. The hardcore Navy SEAL will very likely use nouns that are familiar to him. Hard words, strong words, military words. Things that fill his world and people he comes in contact with every day. A stay-at-home mother of triplets will use different language and see the world in very different way.

And contradictory as this sounds, sometimes being specific is the wrong thing to do. Someone coming into my bedroom might describe my dresser as the "white plantation style with sliding front doors," while I'd just call it "my dresser." "The red tabby" running around my house is just "Darwin" to me. Being too specific can be just as bad as being too vague. Neither give you a solid sense of the character.

When choosing a noun for a character, think about:

How familiar the POV is with what that object.
  • Do they know what it is or not?
  • Is there a term their social group would use?
  • Is it similar to something they know well?
What tone you want to set in the scene.
  • Is there an emotion a particular word would evoke?
  • Do you want contrast anything?
  • Do you want to surprise?
What information it needs to convey.
  • Is this noun part of the world building?
  • Is it part of a critical scene or moment?
  • Does it carry or hide a clue?
  • Does it need to tell readers something about the character?

The best -- and strongest -- nouns do more than just tell you what something is. It helps you place that item in context with the person referring to it. "That whore" isn't the same as "my ex-wife," even if they both refer to the same woman. "Borderland, MN" might be "Boringland, MN" to a teen forced to live there.

Now, it would be insane to suggest you look at every single noun and run through a list of questions. No one has time for that. But as you write, or more likely revise, take a second look at certain scenes. The big turning points, the revelations, the first time someone sees, visits, or encounters something or someplace. Any trouble spots that feel off and you're not sure why.

Look for ways you can strengthen the prose and see if that adds (or fixes) anything in the story. Maybe it's a voice issue because everything sounds too clinical. Maybe it's a description issue with too many specifics the POV just wouldn't use. Maybe it's the wrong nouns altogether, and the right word or two can eliminate lines of text and pick up the pace.

Don't let a noun hunt slow you down, but try thinking about what you choose and if there are places where you can improve your writing by being a bit more (or even less) specific.

Do you ever think about the nouns you use or do they just fall out as you write? Have you ever edited for nouns? Have you ever been stuck by trying to find the right noun? Has the right noun ever changed a scene or fixed a sticking point? 

And just for fun, the best song about nouns ever.


  1. I have to say I tend to edit my picture book manuscripts more for verbs than nouns and I found thus post super helpful. Thank you.

  2. I do tend to edit for stronger nouns and adjectives and verbs. I wish there was a good list of strong verbs. I do check the thesaurus but wish there was a list like your list of redundant words to follow.

  3. It's funny, I still remember the day in third grade where we learned about nouns. How random.

    And no, we weren't cool enough for School House Rock

  4. LOVE School House Rock!

    See, now I would know what an oak tree was. But generally when it comes to trees I stick to maple. Good exercise.

  5. I love how this ties into POV. I wouldn't call something "white plantation style with sliding front doors" either because I'm not furniture-savvy enough to know what "plantation style" is. :)

  6. LOVE the School House Rock. I wish they still showed those on t.v. Our kids are missing out. ("Conjunction, junction, what's your function?")
    And great post. Thanks.

  7. I love that nouns are connected to character voice. :)

  8. Joanna, most welcome! I imagine word choice is even more critical in PBs with that small word count.

    Natalie, so do I. I did some thinking about trying to make one, but I gave it up pretty quickly :) Just too many words. I'll keep thinking though. Maybe I'll come up with something.

    Chelsey, how funny. The things that stick with you.

    Anne, oo maple is a good one. Pretty much everyone knows what those leaves look like.

    MK, lol. That's probably the only thing I know about furniture. Wait, there's a Barcelona chair. I remember that from my architecture classes (before I realized that wasn't the right job for me)

    Heather, they rock. I had to watch a bunch of the others too. I'm Just A Bill might be my favorite.

    Trisha, me too! We never watched it when it was live, but we're just a few episodes short of finishing it now. I love that so many shows are on DVD now.

    Chicory, so much is and we rarely think about it. You put yourself in that character's shoes and it easy to know how they speak.

  9. I can identify with your comment about being too specific. I read a book not too long ago where the descriptions almost drowned me. Great article.

  10. Never really paid attention to the nouns I wrote, but I will now!

  11. Now you tell me! Love the You Tube video....Thanks for the smiles!

  12. scw1217, thanks! That's one of my pet peeves :)

    Rena, awesome! Hope you discover some great ways to use them now.

    The Desert Rocks, anytime :)

  13. Speaking of vague, some of the parts in the article are just that. Although this article conveys good information, the writer didn't give enough evidence to get her point across.

    For example: Strong nouns are words that are specific to the item or the character. "He ran toward the tree" doesn't tell you a thing about that tree. Readers will envision a different type of tree depending on where they live, and possibly how well you've set your scene."

    Well, what noun would you use???

    "He ran toward the oak" tells you some things, but even though it's specific, it's still vague. I bet if I lined up ten trees not everyone could pick the oak out of that lineup."

    Again, what noun would you use to improve the quality?

  14. Mike, I'd have to consider context and the POV to pick the right noun for that sentence. What about the tree matters to the scene? Is it just background description or is it there for a specific reason?

    If the tree is "known" enough, like a cactus or a palm tree that denotes a certain climate, and that climate was important to get across to the reader, I'd use that. If the kind of tree really doesn't matter one whit, I'd use whatever the POV would call it. Even if that's tree.

    If using a specific noun isn't going to help the sentence any (which is sometimes the case) I might continue the description, saying something about the tree that makes it clear why it's there.

    He ran toward the tree with a truck thick enough to hide behind.

    Granted, that's not a noun solution, but as I said in the post, being specific doesn't always work. You also have to consider what you're trying to do. And whether or not you need to be extra specific or not. If you're trying to set the scene or build a mood, specific words can help. If it's just stage directions and background noise, it doesn't matter as much.

    Bottomline, think about what you're trying to do with the sentence or scene, and then pick the best words to get that across.

  15. Really good to see these tips.