Monthly Archives: August 2014

Vocabulary, Word Choice, And Fiction

SpellingBee2011-JamacianContestantAn author’s vocabulary and word choice are closely associated, as I realized when reading Stephen R. Lawhead‘s The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series.

Vocabulary is at the heart of language, and therefore, of writing. An author cannot use words he does not know. Consequently, it seems prudent for any serious writer to do whatever he can to improve his vocabulary.

The easiest method, perhaps, is to read widely. However, some writers take such pleasure in words, they regularly study them. Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins is just such a writer. As a blogger at Forensics and Faith, she shared weekly a new set of words (see for example this vocabulary post), and frequently tweets a new word.

In The Skin Map, I encountered a steady offering of new words—conurbation, telluric, feculent, aubergine, imprimatur. Often the meaning of these words was clear in context. On occasion, I paused in my reading to look up a new offering.

And there is the question—should an author include words that might not be widely understood, chancing that a break in comprehension will damage the “fictive dream” to the extent that the reader won’t want to continue, or will, at least, pause before again buying a book by that author?

The answer to this question actually brings the discussion to word choice. Presumably an author such as Mr. Lawhead who would use a word like feculent could just as easily have chosen to write foul, filthy, or polluted instead. He did not, meaning that he chose a more precise, though less used, word for a reason.

What should an author consider when making such word choices? I don’t think “most common” should be the hard and fast rule, or books will all descend to the level of fifth grade readers, much as TV writing has. At the same time, peppering a story with “fifty dollar” words for the sake of sounding erudite is foolish.

Writing is first and foremost communication. Words that obscure meaning must go. Words that may be difficult can stay as long as the author has a reason for them and creates a context that makes their meaning accessible. Look, for example, at Mr. Lawhead’s use of telluric.

Into the invisible square the old man drew a straight diagonal line. “A ley line,” he said, speaking slowly—as one might to a dog, or dull-wited child, “is what might be called a field of force, a trail of telluric energy. There are hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, all over Britain, and they have been around since the Stone Age.” (from The Skin Map, p. 18)

Notice that the word I’ve labeled “difficult” is describing a type of energy and is renaming “a field of force.” Though this passage may not give a reader enough to come up with a synonym for “telluric,” it nevertheless gives enough for someone unfamiliar with the word to keep reading without having missed anything central to the scene.

In addition, the word appears in dialogue. Much of word choice in fiction must be made in relation to the characters. Is a word too sophisticated for a street urchin? To common for an aristocrat? Too antiquated for a twenty-first century teen?

Choosing words with characters in mind is especially important when writing in a close third person narrative. An author has more latitude when writing, as Mr. Lawhead was in The Skin Map, in an omniscient point of view with an unseen narrator. Beyond dialogue, he could choose words that fit with the narrator persona or with the main character of each particular scene.

In summary, an author should make it his goal to expand his vocabulary. Then, when making word choices from the wealth of his vocabulary, he must consider how clearly his words communicate as well as how consistently they represent his characters.

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This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Vocabulary and Word Choice” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in November 2010.

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The Denouement – Wrapping Up Loose Ends

The End - BookA novel’s plot structure, in its simplest outline, consists of an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and the denouement also called the conclusion or resolution. Of all the story elements, perhaps the least examined is the denouement which resolves the complications of a story’s plot.

Part of this lack of analysis might be because no two denouements look alike. Truly, there is no hard and fast “right way” to wrap up a story.

Fairy tales famously took care of the denouement with one line: They all lived happily ever after. Mysteries often closely dovetail the denouement with the climax—the whodunit is entwined with the lives and stories of the suspects who didn’t do it, and the reader learns all about those too as the detective reveals how the crime was committed.

Somewhat popular today in fantasy are stories that have a somewhat open-ended denouement, often for the purpose of introducing the next book in a series.

Other stories seem to go to great lengths to wrap up all the loose ends. I think, for example, of Return of the King, third in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Essentially the story question ended when Frodo battled Gollum and ended up destroying the One Ring.

But we know by the title that this volume of the story is about the returning king, so after the climax, there is the resolution of the king being accepted by his people. Then there is the story of the hobbits returning home, of their dealing with Sauroman in the Shire, and finally of Frodo’s departure with the elves. And I’m not listing all the various loose ends that are nicely tied in the process.

Another approach is to skip the denouement altogether. The story “The Lady Or The Tiger?” skips the climax (will the princess tell her lover under punishment by the king to open the door releasing the tiger or the lady he would then have to marry?) Consequently, with no climax, there can be no denouement.

Gone With The Wind ends in a similar way with one major difference: the protagonist is a different person in the end; she has learned who she loves and who she doesn’t love and she’s learned what gives her strength. Apart from that, the reader knows little of what will become of her.

The_End_(5647069175)Writing instructor John Truby in The Anatomy of a Story says, “A great story lives forever” (p. 418), much the way a train ends but continues on.

Truby describes three types of endings that truncate a story: premature endings (of which there are also three kinds: the protagonist’s early self-revelation, the hero’s desire attained too quickly, the actions the hero takes to achieve his goal aren’t organic); arbitrary endings in which the story just stops; and the closed ending in which the hero achieves his goal, gains new insights, and essentially lives happily ever after.

With these endings, the story does not live on.

All three of these structural elements give the audience the sense that the story is complete and the system has come to rest. But that’s not true. Desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee the hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is a always a living thing, an ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story. (Truby, The Anatomy of a Story, p. 419)

As I see it, this “living ending” is the secret to a successful denouement. Of course, there is no formula, no set way to ensure that readers will continue to think about the characters going on after the story, but there are some principles that might help.

One writer, Charlie Jane Anders, says the most legitimate reason for the denouement to exist is to “provide some resolution to the themes of your story.” She goes on to explain:

if your plot doesn’t end with enough of a clear-cut catharsis to resolve the main themes of your novel, then yes, you need a denouement. (“What’s The Difference Between Denouement And Picking At A Scab?“)

Later she adds

Remember: readers actually like it when you make them do a lot of the work themselves. And a big part of the pleasure of reaching the end of a book is getting to imagine in your own mind how the characters will go on afterwards — the story keeps unspooling in your head after you stop turning pages, except that the training wheels have come off. So the less you spoonfeed the reader in your final pages, the more you’re inviting her/him to start imagining the story after the book ends. (Ibid.)


Statements about denouements that accomplish what a novel needs, then, include the following:

  • they do not have a set length
  • they do allow the characters to “go on living” after the end of the story
  • they may give a panoramic view of the characters doing something that lends itself to expansion in the reader’s mind
  • they may hint at what happens next without spelling out particulars
  • they should wrap up the theme of the story, though other loose ends may still be dangling.

Your turn: what’s the best ending you’ve read? What, in your view, made it so good?

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Putting The Good In Good Description

newspaper-490932-mOnce upon a time, description read much like a classified ad, with all the significant attributes of whatever object the author chose to highlight, listed out one after the other. More recently, this kind of static description has given way to description through action.

While this method may be the best way for writers to create graphic scenes and vivid characters, it is not the only app on the screen. Let’s look at three other devices that contribute to good description.

First, good description utilizes a variety of senses. Rather than limiting depiction of characters or setting to visual aspects, a writer can include sound, touch, taste, or smells to give life to the story. This idea is not new and may seem simplistic.

However, the saying “too much of a good thing” can apply to description, too. I’ve critiqued, judged, or edited work before that seemed bent on providing a five-senses descriptive experience, regardless of whether or not the sounds or smells, tastes or textures mattered to the story. Rather than enhancing the scene, these unnecessary additions bloat the action, slowing the pace.

Picking the right sensory details, then, is the second way writers can build scenes that come alive. The clue is to pick those sensory details that matter to the character at that time, in that place. From Description by Monica Wood:

Sometimes it takes only one or two details to light up a character for your readers. These precise, illuminating finds are the “telling” details of fiction, for they stretch beyond mere observation to give the readers a larger, richer sense of character or place. The old man’s carefully parted hair suggests that he has not totally given up. The tinny clatter of cheap crockery implies that the restaurateur has fallen on hard times. …

This kind of detail makes fiction more than what-happens-next storytelling. It makes description more than an account. The right details, inserted at the right times, allow your readers access to a character’s inner landscape (pp. 6-7).

A third device at the writer’s disposal when creating powerful imagery is two-pronged: on one hand the writer may employ similes and on the other, metaphors.

A simile is a figurative statement comparing two usually unrelated things or people to one another by using “like” or “as.” The sentence My brother is as tall as my father does not create a simile because the comparison is between two people. However, My brother is as tall as a giraffe does produce a simile.

The metaphor is another figure of speech, more understated and more revealing, according to Ms. Woods.

With a simile, the comparison stops at the end of the sentence; with a metaphor, the reader’s imagination goes on to include all the images and associations that the metaphor implies (Description, p. 14).

Metaphors, like similes, can be created using nouns and adjectives. Example: The boss was coming, our supervisor warned us. And still I wasn’t prepared for the peacock that strutted into the conference room.

Another effective way to create metaphors is to utilize verbs, which some writers already do naturally. Characters burrow under the covers, for example, or fly across the room. These established uses of verbs in a non-literal sense add color to our writing. Creating new and unusual metaphors make our words memorable.

Just For Fun.

I used two metaphors earlier in this post (not as part of an example). Just for fun, see if you can spot them, then write your own or identify the well-known (and oft used) comparison that served as the model for the one I created. Feel free to leave your answers in the comments if you’d like.

Next, look at your work in progress and find places you can deepen your description by creating a simile or metaphor. Enjoy! 😀

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This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Good Description” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in June 2011.

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The Character Arc

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968A number of writing instructors refer to the character arc, or the path a protagonist takes from the beginning of the story to the end, as a tool for the novelist. In many respects it is an artificial construct best recognized after the fact. Except, what happens to the main character really is the story.

Some novels or visual stories, to be sure, have heroes who change little. Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV show exhibited little change week after week. The Lone Ranger, first as radio drama, then as a 50s black and white TV favorite, centered on a similar unchanging hero.

Some might consider those types of stories to be plot driven. Except, characters around the iconic protagonists often changed. Each episode, then, was about the growth or character arc of a secondary figure: the woman trying to make a go of a stage line, the creature who lured passing star ships into his prison, the sheriff accused of murder.

Nevertheless, the eye of the reader or the viewer is on the protagonist who does not change. Generally he has a set of values or a code of conduct which guides him from start to finish. He may have flaws, but he is true to his own standards which neither improve nor deteriorate. They are who the character is. Other such characters include Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond.

One writing instructor identifies these types of characters as having a flat arc. (And I’m wondering about the geometric possibility of such a shape! 😉 )

By far the greatest number of stories depict characters who exhibit growth throughout their story. At the beginning the protagonist has a problem or story question that drives her actions forward. But she also has an inner life that dovetails with these outer circumstances. By the end of the story, the character has learned what she needs, made what changes her circumstances require, commits to a new course of action, and thus answers the story problem which confronted her at the beginning.

This is obviously a simplistic sketch of the character arc, but it shows an important aspect—the inner life of the character and the outer events of the plot are integrally entwined.

The need for character growth can sometimes be caused by the inaccuracies a character believes about himself or the world or both. These beliefs drive him to make decisions and to act as he acts.

Sometimes his actions bring success, but not permanent change, and he is forced to come up with a better plan. More often, however, his actions fail because they were built on those erroneous views.

Poster_-_Gone_With_the_Wind_02For example, in Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara believes she’ll be happy if she can win Ashley Wilkes’ affections. She makes great plans only to hear his announcement that he will marry someone else. She believes she must get him alone and declare her feelings for him, but when she follows through with her plot, he spurns her advances.

Other problems intervene—the Civil War, his marriage, his wife’s devotion to Scarlett—and yet she persists in believing that she would be happy if only she could be with Ashley.

As events unfold, the reader begins to understand that Ashley is not the answer to Scarlett’s happiness. At long last, Scarlett herself comes to realize the truth. She is, in fact, in love with Rhett Butler, and has been for some time. However, when she makes this discovery and declares her love, he tells her she’s realized the truth too late. His love for her has died.

More common are stories in which the protagonist realizes the truth, takes the necessary steps in the right direction, and is rewarded in the end with what he actually needed. However, as with Scarlett, he may not accomplish his goal in the end, though he may find what he needed.

Not every character arc is built upon the character believing a lie. Some show a character’s struggle to overcome a flaw. Initially he may not realize how devastating his character weakness is, but as the story progresses, he has a moment of self-revelation that either pushes him to change or to despair.

Still other characters might believe something true though no one else in his circle does. His story arc, then, might show how his beliefs are tested, how he himself is tempted to doubt in the face of failure after failure. At some point, however, after facing his greatest fears, he chooses to cling to his belief, no matter what.

For example, a boy just out of his teens wants to be a writer. He completes a novel and sends it out to publishers but receives rejection after rejection. As years go by, his friends laugh at his “silly hobby,” his wife encourages him to find “a real job.” He takes odd jobs to make ends meet, but every spare moment he works on another story and another and another. His rejections pile up, but he believes he has the talent, he knows he has the love, and he keeps trying. Eventually his hope wanes.

At last, he experiences the turning point. His wife is threatening divorce. His friends no longer come around. He’s out of money. Again. And he’s no longer a kid. He must get a better job to keep his house and show his wife he cares about the family, or he must publish. Here is his dark night of the soul. What will he do—cling to what he knows is true, that he was born to write; or cave and abandon his life’s work.

What he decides and how the events of the plot resolve in the face of that decision, complete his character arc. He will have either ditched his long held beliefs or held to them more tightly than ever.

Must those stories resolve happily? Clearly not. The character may make a decision to cling to his faith, but dies without seeing a positive result.

However, death should bear out that the character made the right choice. In the case of the writer, he may become famous and receive awards posthumously. Or in a different story, a young girl may end up dying so that others she has lived for go free.

If the character dies and his view of the world or himself are not validated, his character arc makes him out to be a fool. I’m not sure many readers would care to read a story about a character who held firmly to his beliefs only to be proved wrong in the end.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley came close to utilizing this character arc. Savage, the main character, dies and his beliefs are not validated in the story world, but they are validated in the hearts and minds of readers. At least they were validated in part in the heart of this reader.

To sum up, the change in the inner life of a character from beginning to end forms the character arc of a story. A handful of iconic characters don’t show change, though others around them will. Stories begin with a character believing a lie, struggling against a flaw, or clinging against all odds to a truth he believes.

Not all stories resolve happily with the character making positive change and finding success because of it. However, if the end resolves badly for the character, his character arc may still be positive if what he believed or learned is validated as the right course for him to take.

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