Searching for the Right Words? Tip #33

bwship storm
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This series aims to help authors express the full meaning and emotional content of their fiction. As writers, we seek to inspire readers with joy, stoke their terrors, romance them with love, overwhelm them with horror, inflame their passions. This set of posts examines how we might influence mood, illustrating how word choice and sentence structure can alter the reading experience. All thoughts and comments are welcome.


“The storm was fierce and the girls aboard the ship were frightened.”

This tells the reader something about an incident at sea. But there’s no picture painted; just the bald facts. The reader has nothing to help form a connection with the experience, to help empathise with the characters.

How’s this as an alternative?

“The storm raged unchecked and seemingly without end. Wind howled through rigging and tore at the few sails still unfurled, ripping one canvas to flap and smack the air above them. The ship lurched and dipped, bucked and shook, as waves tossed it and sought to drown it. Loud over the background of screaming and groaning timbers, came a report sharp as the crack of a whip. A fearful, groaning creak followed, to end in a crash that shook the whole vessel. Men yelled and screamed in the dark. The girls in their cabin were rigid with terror.”

This passage is from Joinings: A Seared Sky, book 1 of the epic fantasy trilogy. It gives details to help the reader vicariously live through the experience and provides some emotional clues about the characters’ feelings. This passage is part of a longer scene that immerses the reader into the petrifying experience of a violent storm at sea.

If nothing else, I hope this series will enhance our writing with words that more precisely reflect what we’re trying to convey to readers.

I prefer to use Roget’s Thesaurus when editing; the 1987 edition. It’s within easy reach on my reference shelf. Other books of word choices, which I sometimes consult when the apposite word evades me, reside alongside it. But, first, I try to glean that ‘right’ word from the teaming void within my skull: it’s good mental exercise and trains the brain to seek and find the right word in the future.

A good thesaurus provides alternatives for the idea of the word you’re seeking, but not all the suggestions are true synonyms. Always consider context by placing it in the sentence and making sure it actually makes sense.

2 thoughts on “Searching for the Right Words? Tip #33

  1. Chris AM

    That’s true- but what about word economy? It isn’t wise to over describe every single scene, wouldn’t you agree?

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    1. I agree, Chris. Words are the writer’s currency, and like anything of value, overuse will devalue them. So much of how we write depends on our own perspective, the subject we’re portraying, the genre we’re employing and our own style of writing. Thrillers depend on action, with little character development. Romance depends on relationships between the lovers. Each type of story has its own needs. And each passage has its own requirements. Whilst long, detailed passages of description have a place in literary novels, they certainly would be unwelcome in a scifi novel if they interrupted the pace too frequently or for too long.
      There are no real rules, but we do well to keep in mind the probable reaction of our readers as we fine tune our work. I find this is best done by reading the piece out loud. This seems to emphasise the places where particular types of break occur, and it definitely highlights those places where description gets in the way of the reader’s enjoyment.
      As with most things in life, it’s a matter of balance. And, as the creator of a work of imagination, it’s the writer’s job to ensure that balance works, I guess.

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