Weekly Writing Memo: Word Choice is EverythingPosted: May 11, 2016
Whether you’re writing a screenplay, fiction, or non-fiction, the words you choose to tell your story are vital to relaying meaning to your audience. Word choices set tone, establish character, relay plot, create tension, draw the audience in, and much, much more. The wrong word used in a story, even in a screenplay, can completely change the meaning of what is happening.
In a screenplay, words are used to portray information for how the film should be produced. A bad word decision can take a serious scene and turn it comedic, ruining what the writer intended. In a fiction or non-fiction novel, poor word choices can lead to lack of clarity, lack of character or plot development, and even boredom in the audience. There are a lot of ways you can use word choice to enhance your story, but some of the most common ones are:
Setting the Tone
The way you write about what is happening in the story creates the tone for the story. If you use slang instead of proper terms, it can create a more laid back feel to the story. If you use vague language to describe something technical, it creates confusion and the explanation can lose meaning. Similarly, if you use a lot of words when one will do, it can make the story feel muddled and like it is rambling without purpose.
The key is, you have to decide what the tone you’re going for in your writing before you get too far into telling your story. If you’re going for something light in tone, then the way you write about events, and the words you use to describe them, will change. For example, if you want to describe a dead body and you want it to be serious, you would keep things more technical or focused on the circumstances or scene:
“The woman’s body spilled across the mattress, arms askew and eyes hidden behind movie-star sunglasses. Blood poured from the gunshot in her chest, dripping into a puddle on the floor.”
If you want to make it a scene with a lighter tone, you’d talk about the scene in a different way, and focus on different things:
“The woman sprawled across the mattress like she was sunbathing with her clothes on. Her eyes were masked behind large sunglasses, not that there was any life left in them to be hidden.”
The first example is more serious, focusing on the wound and the damage. The second example lightens things somewhat by comparing the body to something light (a sunbather), and by the narrator having an attitude and being flippant about the body’s eyes being lifeless.
If you look at the first example you’ll also notice I used the word “body” to describe the woman, while I used nothing but “woman” in the second example. This word choice changes the tone as well. In the first, the word “body” draws attention to the fact that someone is dead and immediately sets a more serious tone. The lack of any indication that the woman is dead until the end of the second example helps create the lighter tone.
The tone is set by the words you choose to use, and how you choose to use them, but also remember that sometimes it’s the words you choose NOT to use that matter.
The purpose of dialogue in story is to do two things, to establish character and to further the plot. Every word your characters speak tells the audience something about your character. Do they use slang instead of proper speech? Do they use the wrongs words to describe something? Do they use a lot of words to say something simple?
Whenever you write a character’s dialogue, focus on who that character is and make sure that the dialogue is true to them. If they didn’t graduate high school, they’re most likely not going to speak like a PhD. If they are from a foreign country, they may slip in foreign words now and then. Whoever your character is should come out in their speech, so always figure out each characters’ distinct speaking traits before writing so you can stay consistent.
When using dialogue to further plot, you also need to consider word choice. If you spell things out simply—“I want the diamond or I’ll kill you”—then the dialogue is kind of boring. It’s too straightforward. If, however, you have the threat come out in a different way, such as the classic—“we have ways of making you talk.” It leads to the audience having a different experience.
The vague language leaves room for the imagination to go off and come up with all sorts of possibilities for how the person will be made to talk. In most cases, it’s always better to find a way for characters to say things without them saying “I want this” because most people in real life don’t say directly what they want. People ramble, they beat around the bush, and they play games, so your characters should as well.
The words you use to write your descriptions are one of the most important elements of your story. If you use weak or vague words to describe parts of your story it can lead to a lack of clarity and take away from the vividness of your story.
For example, if you say “Mary took a very long walk to the park. She was tired.” It’s not a very interesting sentence, and it’s also kind of vague. What does long mean? A mile? Two miles? A few blocks? How tired is Mary?
Instead, you could say something more specific: “Mary walked the three miles to the park from her house. By the time she returned home, she was sure she could sleep for a month.” It’s not the best pair of sentences in the world, but it’s more descriptive than the first version. The point is, the language you use can relay a lot of information, and if you use vague words like “long, beautiful, tall, smart, etc” then you are missing out on opportunities to create a clearer picture for your audience.
Ultimately, all your audience has to rely on for understanding your story is what you give them, so give them the best that you can.