Building Blocks of a Novel: Word Choice
Hi all, Julie here!
Recently I found myself looking out a hotel room window at a cityscape. The view made me think of the components of a city—streets made up of buildings, buildings made up of walls, walls made up of bricks.
I found myself thinking of all the unnoticed bricks that were holding up the city below my window.
This observation got me thinking about novels. I started considering all the components of a novel—chapters made up of scenes, scenes made up of paragraphs, paragraphs made up of sentences, sentences made up of words.
This whole metaphor gave me the idea for a series on the building blocks of a novel. This post will be on words—the most basic building block. The next will be about sentences, then paragraphs, then scenes, then chapters. Of course, most things as intricate as a novel are greater than the sum of their parts, so maybe the final post in the series will be about how a novel transcends (or hopes to transcend) all these things that go into it.
Starting with words.
Word choice is one of the most fundamental aspects of writing, so much so that we don’t talk about it much. But the wrong word can leave writing flat or confusing, and more importantly, the right word can make writing come alive on the page.
There are so many ways in which word choice impacts a piece of writing! Since we’re talking about novels, I want to focus on clarity, voice, and sound.
One of the most powerful things about word choice is the subtle change in meaning that can happen when a writer changes just one word. Consider the differences between the following:
“She dropped the package to the ground.”
“She chucked the package to the ground.”
“She hurled the package to the ground.”
Swap package with bundle and ground with pavement and the meaning changes even more. Consider the difference between “She dropped the package to the ground,” and “She hurled the bundle to the pavement.”
This is a painfully simple example, and the lesson here is so basic and elementary, it’s easy to assume this is something we all know how to do and dive into what we perceive as more “advanced” methods of improving our writing. But all the symbolism and metaphors and motifs in the world won’t rescue a sentence from the wrong words. Without clarity, our meaning is lost. We can all think of at least one book we’ve read that felt muddled and murky. Just as you wouldn’t want to watch a movie that was shot through a blurry lens, you wouldn’t want to read an out-of-focus story. Word choice instills meaning and tone, and without intentional language those things suffer.
Word choice has a huge impact on that elusive aspect of writing we call voice. There are many ways to define voice, but for this post, I’ll turn to something Kat Zhang wrote in a fabulous post on the subject for this blog:
“Voice is, I think, the way a story is told. Just as how the same piece of music sounds quite different if played on a violin versus a flute (or sung by a choir or a rapper), a story that involves that same plot, characters, world, etc, can still change a lot depending on the voice used to tell it.”
By carefully selecting the right words, a writer can alter the voice of a story from tense to sarcastic to poetic. I often turn to The Catcher in the Rye when I need an example of a story told with a distinct and unmistakable voice. Imagine how word choice would affect the voice of just the first line:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
~ JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.
If Salinger had changed just a few words—substituting painful for lousy and stuff for crap, for instance, the voice would have been significantly altered.
This example also demonstrates how strongly word choice impacts characterization, especially in a first person narrative. But even in third person, word choice will help or hinder characterization. If I write, “The family always dined at six,” your idea of the characters will be different than if I write, “The family always ate at six,” or “The family always broke bread at six.”
Rhythm and Sound
I’ve written about adding sound to your prose on the blog before, but I want to mention it here because sound ties in to any discussion of word choice. Comedy illustrates this beautifully. Think of Bill Murray’s line in the movie Stripes: “That’s the fact Jack!” So much of that comedic moment relies on the sound and rhythm of the words. Comedian Brian Regan has a whole bit about forgetting to do a project for science when he was in the sixth grade and handing in a “cup o’ dirt.” The entire joke depends on the staccato sound of the words. If Regan had said he handed in a “container of soil,” the joke would lose all of its impact. Of course, the importance of choosing words for their sound and rhythm applies to all writing, not just comedy. If you can think of a book that received praise for its lyrical prose or its taut tension, you can be sure it contains excellent examples of words carefully chosen for their sound.
Returning to our metaphor of a city, the words you choose for your novel really are comparable to the bricks used by the builder. When bricks are well chosen and do their job, they go unnoticed. They hold everything in place and create beauty and function. The words you choose will do the same. The right words will hold up the structure of your novel and give it style without calling attention to themselves.
What are your thoughts on word choice? Do you have any advice to add? Please share your ideas in the comments!