Word Choice: The secret power of a great writer

Word choice matters when crafting a story. Good word choice can make a good story into a great one. Just as poor word choice can make a great story merely okay.

In this post, we will look at some tricky challenges that will help you write an amazing first chapter.

The art of word choice

Choosing the exact right word can convey to your reader more than an entire chapter of exposition.

While many words may have near identical dictionary definitions, they can carry radically different emotional connotations. Consider the difference between “”a wise old king” and “a crafty aging autocrat”.

Technically these two phrases mean the same thing but they feel poles apart. The more you can hook the emotional weight we as a culture add to certain words the more work you can make each word do in your story.

Consider describing the process by which the society in your story embraced vat cloning and what that means to people. Now contrast that with, “He was one of the last boys born the old fashioned way.”

In just twelve words we have told the reader everything they need to really know to understand the setting. Better yet, you have made a promise. A promise that if you just keep reading you will see this strange world and the people that inhabit it.

Rather than telling the reader all the details, you have lifted the curtain on a world utterly different and whispered, “the first hit is free, if you want more you have to turn the page.”

What if we had said, “he was one of the last humans born to a mother”? It pretty much says the same information but it implies a whole different world. A world where the human race is coming to an end.

The twelve-word challenge

It might seem impossible but try this challenging yet rewarding exercise. Write just one sentence of twelve words that conveys the barest of bare-bones understanding that the reader will need to know.

Imagine that this is all you get to bring a reader into your setting. Everything that truly matters must be hidden in those twelve choice words.

What you will inevitably discover is that finding the right word out of the range of possible words you could use can radically redefine the expanded meaning of your sentance.

By at least attempting the twelve -word challenge you will learn a lot about what is important to your setting. You may also come up with a killer opening line.

The mono-word challenge

For this challenge, you will want to consider the first time your central character enters the very first setting. You’ve described the sunset, the golden beach, and the joyous music coming from a nearby party.

They say but one word.

That word can speak volumes about the character and their relationship to the setting.

See how different these lines sound:

He looked out at the sea. “Wow,” he whispered.

She looked at the beach and screwed up her face. “Meh.”

He smiled at the setting. “Okay,” he said.

She looked again. “What?”

Put your character in the first setting your reader will encounter them in. Even if you chose to ultimately leave it out of your finished story, what one word do they say?

Which single utterance best sums up who they are, how they feel, and what their relationship is to the setting?

Wide description with a narrow focus challenge

A writing trick used by many authors is to describe a setting by picking out one or two key details and letting the reader’s cultural assumptions fill out the rest.

Consider a royal bedroom. You could describe the fine word carving, the expensive paintings, and all the other details. Or you could go to town on the bedding made from the finest gold trimmed silks imported from half a world away.

You would not need to describe the opulence of the room any further. That much is implied by the one signature detail.

The next time you describe a setting try doing so by picking out one key detail that is the perfect exemplar for the other details. That key thing in the setting which clearly implies all the other things that you have not actually mentioned.

Give the wide description with a narrow focus challenge a go. With some careful word choice you may find yourself saying a lot with very few words.

How selective is your word selection?

I hope I have inspired you to consider how selectively choosing just the right few words can enable you to say so much with so few words.

When you give these writing challenges a go, do come back and let me know how you got on. If you chose to share your writing do please ping me, I’d love to read what you come up with.

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