The other day, I was poking around some writers' forums and came across a conversation in which the essence of word choices came up. Here’s a bit of what was said by someone who was making a point about the limits of language, in particular, as it pertains to a disabled character versus an ambulatory one. This poster wrote:
. . . [I] decided to change my play to make the leading lady disabled. Before she became disabled she could walk, stride, pace, run, amble, stroll, step, skip, bound, hop, etc., etc. As soon as she was wheelchair bound she couldn't do much more than "wheel" or "move" - it seems the disabled do not even get equality from the English language!Now, beyond the obvious and nauseating political correctness working there, there is another, and real, issue here. And it comes down to taking time to think about what your words mean and what they are doing in your story. This is a matter of diction.
|This dude has as many verb options . . .|
|. . . as this chick does.|
Hercamer walked to the water.Okay, so both of them got to the water. By the argument made by the poster on that forum, if I were to want to revise that sentence, I would only have a few options for Gertie, but several for Hercamer.
Gertie wheeled to the water.
So the point that there aren’t lots of “rolling” synonyms when compared to bipedal options is, perhaps, arguably true.Hercamer stepped to the water. Hercamer ambled to the water. Hercamer hopped to the water. Hercamer strolled to the water… bounded to the water, skipped, ran, paced, etc.
Gertie moved to the water. Gertie rolled to the water. And that’s it.
But this is where diction comes in. Diction is about choices, and, more importantly, it's about story. It’s about adding words that enhance the story and engage the reader. It’s not just about conveying in the simplest way the “reality” of what happened.
Whatever my little story is, it isn’t a story about someone walking to the edge of a lake or wheeling to the edge of a lake. Or is it? Please tell me it’s not, because if it is, it’s the worst story of all time. Once upon a time Gertie wheeled to the edge of a lake. Dear God, kill me if that is ever a story.
What is really going on is that this lake scene is the continuation (or beginning) of plot, of the pursuit of desires on the part of real, living humans occupying the space, the actual physical place, of the story. That is what was missing when the poster in that forum wrote what she wrote. She was completely leaving out everything but the most basic constituent of the writing. She was just worried about how to write the actual mechanics of a character's motion. The sole focus, and therefore limitation, was about verb choices centered on how the character got to the water.
Who gives a shit?
Nobody cares if Hercamer walked to the water or Gertie rolled. That’s boring. That’s basic motion. Walking is crap that every toddler figures out by the time they are one and a half. Rolling is crap that a character in a wheelchair at a lake is already expected to know. Those verbs add NOTHING to the story.
What the forum poster was missing is that all the “ambling” and “strolling” that she was including for her upright character was beginning to prod at possibilities for her bipedal character in a way that she wasn't doing for her disabled character. Why does someone amble? Why do they stroll? Because they aren't in a hurry, that's why. And why couldn’t someone in a wheelchair have similar verbs to use?
Hercamer ambled his way to the water.What matters is that neither character is in a hurry. There is something going on in the story that drives them to behave this way. The verbs reflect their motivation, their emotions and state of mind.
Gertie meandered her way to the water.
Moreover, verbs can also reflect a sense of place. The right ones can give sensory depth, add to the setting of the story, making place and temperature and even time more meaningful.
Hercamer leapt over large rocks on his way to the water.Obviously, I could go on, but you get the point. The only limitation any of our characters have is going to be us. I know that when I am writing a first draft, I am immersed in the dream of my story. I’m sort of watching it happen in my head and taking notes. So I don’t always get all the best verbs (or nouns) in. I might find that my disabled character did a lot of wheeling and rolling through my original draft when I go back through. But that’s the fun of revision. First drafts are fun because they are riding the wave. Revisions are fun because they are making art.
Gertie wove her way around large rocks on her way to the water.
Hercamer trudged through the deep sand on his way to the lake’s cool embrace.
Gertie yanked and hove her way through the deep sand on her way to the lake’s cool embrace.
Hercamer stumbled his way down the rocky slope towards the water.
Gertie rattled her way down the rocky slope towards the water.
So, that said, I’ll give you a few examples from a couple of great writers. I’ll start with THE greatest writer of all time, Shakespeare. I’ll go with a play most folks know and take three lines from Macbeth
The west yet glimmers with some streaks of day.
Now spurs the lated traveler apace
To gain the timely inn… (3.3.7-9)
Okay, before breaking this down, let’s add some contrast. The odds are, if I was writing a similar scene in one of my stories, and perhaps you would as well, I would have written something like this:
The sun was setting as the traveler rode towards the inn.
I just said the same thing he did, and there is nothing wrong with what I wrote. But look what mine is doing versus what Shakespeare's is doing. Mine is just TELLING you that the sun is setting; it’s just TELLING you that someone is on a horse. My verbs are doing crude, basic work. Just the facts, Ma’am.
The same can be said for the “Now spurs the lated traveler apace.” That’s just like the walk or roll thing for Hercamer and Gertie. Shakespeare could have had the horse walking, or trotting or something equally banal. But he didn’t. He had the rider spurring. So we have in our heads the horse moving AND the rider acting in some fashion upon it. We now know he’s not just slumped in the saddle or sitting rigidly or anything else. He’s spurring it towards the inn. That’s what we should try to do when we write.
The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the center of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands posed like gulls on the surface of the billows.That's what good writing looks like.