When drafting your piece, be it short fiction or long, it’s important to remember that the words you choose carry weight and that consistency of voice will add depth to your characters just as much as the actions and thoughts and feelings that those words convey.
When I’m writing a first draft, basically I’m grabbing at whatever words will do to get my point across. They’re like place holders. The first draft is a marathon and LANGUAGE doesn’t matter as much as getting the ideas down on paper.
When I’m editing, word choice becomes much more significant. The language I choose to describe a scene will greatly enhance the experience of the reader. Words hold powerful influence over how we perceive a character or setting.
Consider the following three examples taken from the first pages of three incredible books. (By the by, I’m moving in a few weeks, so all my Harry Potter books are already packed. These three books were chosen from what has not been packed yet.)
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.
Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex. Their estate was large and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner, as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his hoe; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it. In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman’s days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased. The constant attention of r. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of hear, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive; and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence.
The Book of Flying – Keith Miller
I am dreaming. I’m dreaming of a city, a white city in the sun by the sea, a city of bells and birdcages, boatswains and ballyhoo, where heart-faced wenches lean bare-breasted from balconies to dry their hair among geraniums and the air is salt and soft and in the harbor sailors swagger from ships that bear cargos of spices. In this city a thousand doves live in the hundred towers of a hundred bells and in the mornings when the bell ringers toll a summons to the sun the doves scatter like blown ash across the tile roofs and light under eaves whispering lulling words to sleepers, bidding them stay in bed a little longer. And on the silver sky other wings rise.
In each case above, the language employed by the author paints a distinct picture. The narrative voice and the setting are solidified through the words chosen to describe the action. Imagine the picture you would get if the opening passage of the Hunger Games was written in the style that Keith Miller uses for the Book of Flying. You might not feel Katniss’s discontent or sense of urgency at all. Miller is painting us a picture of a beautiful land of enchantment. We couldn’t imagine otherwise after reading those opening words.
Jane Austen’s prose, far from being just a portrait of the times in which she lived, is calculated to give you an idyllic impression of the situation of the social class she is writing about, just before she smashes it all to pieces (ever so subtly and wittily, of course).
When they say a picture paints a thousand words… remember that a word, that LANGUAGE paints pictures as well. Choose your images with care.