Saturday, April 16, 2011

Day 28 - Diction... It's not just fun to say. (Tips for good revisions.)

So I’m still in edits phase of this manuscript process. Well, technically my editor is in it, but I’m in that mood set and working on a different novel doing revisions (and trying not to be impatient—sigh). So I’m spending a lot of time thinking about editing, and about language and why each choice matters.

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 . . .
Diction is fun. And it’s not just fun because it has a penis reference buried inside it for those of us still sporting sixth-grade mentalities; it’s fun because it allows you to create space and meaning. It’s the difference between a story being told in a boring way or in an interesting one. First I’ll show you what I mean, then I’ll dig up some examples from writers who really do it well. Let’s start with the example from that writer’s forum.

. . . as this chick does.
Her premise is that there are fewer verbs for describing motion for a wheelchair bound character. So, using two people for examples, I’m going to create a scenario using what that forum poster gave us to work with. I’ll have a character named Hercamer who can walk, and a character named Gertie who is in a wheelchair. We’ll have both characters at a lake somewhere on a hot summer day. Here goes:
Hercamer walked to the water.
Gertie wheeled 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.
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.
So the point that there aren’t lots of “rolling” synonyms when compared to bipedal options is, perhaps, arguably true.

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.
Gertie meandered her 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.

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.
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.
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.

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. 

Shakespeare gives you more. Shakespeare is engaging you. He’s not telling you what the sun is doing; he’s making you see it for yourself. He’s rendering an image in your head and YOU have to figure out from that visual experience what is happening. It’s almost a riddle, and you have to be involved in it to know what’s going on. You know you’re looking west because he starts you there, then he gives you “glimmers” so now the west in your mind lights up some, not a lot, just a glimmer, because that is exactly the verb he wanted for you. Then you get what’s left, some streaks of day. Not “streaks of day” but “some” streaks of day. So, we have this remnant of day glimmering and there’s only “some” of it left (which works nicely with “yet” in “yet glimmers” to give the sense of nearing dark as opposed to approaching day). With surgical diction, Shakespeare has rendered a sunset for you. You must extrapolate it though; you must participate. Which is interesting. It requires you become engaged. People always say that a good book is “engaging.” That’s an excellent word to hear about a book, right? Well, that’s what Shakespeare just did. He engaged us as readers. Me writing “the sun went down” is not engaging. It’s just telling you what happened. You don’t get to do anything. Yawn.

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.

Edith Wharton
Ok, so to end this, I’m going to leave you with what I consider to be the finest example of descriptive writing ever penned. While you might find something you can make an argument for being as good as this, I do not think it’s possible to surpass this. I believe an entire semester of college writing could be taught out of this paragraph alone. Take some time and really look at all of this slowly and carefully. It will make you a better writer if you do. Watch the verb choices and how they function despite what this passage might at first appear to be. Observe the nouns as well. Look how much each adds, not just to description, but to theme, to scale, to personality, to history. There is nothing wasted in this, and this is not the sort of thing that one writes in a first draft. This is diction at its finest. So, without further adieu, here is a bit from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence:

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.


  1. I read this book (The Age of Innocence) at your request once. When I finished, I felt almost immediately as though I should start over and read it again. The whole scope of the novel angered me - but it was so well written that I thought it had to be read over and over. And, part of that was the awesome descriptive narrative. Great choice.

  2. It's funny, it's definitely not the kind of story I am naturally inclined to be interested in, not a setting I would pick, people I would care about... but the writing is so amazing it always stands out to me as just an absolute case-study for writers wanting to see prose done right. She makes you care.

  3. I learn so much when I read your work. Thank you for taking the time to teach others what you have labored already to learn.
    I, too, love the editing, the molding a slab of stuff I thought was pretty cool into a work of art. Thank you for being a guide to places in my "masterpieces" where I might want to place my chisel.