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Monday, January 30

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.