Searching for the Right Words? Tip #38

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This series, now reaching its natural close, 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 can influence mood, illustrating how word choice and sentence structure alters the reading experience. All thoughts and comments are welcome.


“The sun was hot. The only life in the desert was snakes and birds of prey. The man he had seen earlier had disappeared from sight. It was silent until he heard a noise but then it was silent again.

I know this is extreme in its simplicity, but, believe me, I’ve read books containing such sparse, uninteresting narratives. Well, to be honest, I’ve started reading them, but never continued. Who’d want to read such banal prose?

Let’s try something different.

“The sun, climbing now, was already hot on his face and threatened to bake him dry as the earth beneath his feet. Neither shade nor shelter relieved the rocks and scattered thorny bushes of this desert. His quarry had already vanished over the ridge when Okkyntalah ran into a brood of venomous sand snakes. They hissed but slithered off listlessly at his approach. Apart from the wide wings of a troop of buzzards, hunting high for carrion, he saw no signs of animal life. When still half a league from the ridge, he stopped to listen at what he thought was the call of a horn. But there was no repeat. In fact, so silent was it in this desolate place, he could hear his heart beating its regular rhythm.”

This is part of a longer passage from Joinings, the first part of the epic fantasy trilogy, A Seared Sky. Here, one of the heroes of the story is searching for fresh water to refill drinking pouches for a long journey. He is entering a part of the land that bears a reputation for harshness. Here, I was trying to convey a sense of the heat, lack of water and inherent threat of the place he was crossing. The sound of the horn at the end is a hint of potential danger, and the description of his audible heartbeat lends some physical weight to that threat, as readers associate heartbeat with emotion. We aren’t generally aware of our own heartbeats unless we are in situations of danger, so the mention here adds tension to the passage.

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.