The Right Word

Mark Twain QuoteMark Twain famously once said “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter – it is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”

As writers it’s important to know that we’re more than storytellers, we are wordsmiths! Every word we type has potential to do more than convey character and plot. Our words can also deepen the mood and emotional resonance in our novels.

Ilsa J. Bick is a master of this technique. In her apocalyptic zombie novel, Ashes, Bick intensifies each page with the danger of her world through the use of aggressive words. In the following examples Bick uses the violent words of: slash, spear, and pierced, to describe otherwise peaceful images.

ashes_sales-1“She registered the slash of morning sun in an already too-bright and very cold room…” (301).

“She heard the creak of Tom’s footsteps overhead, and a spear of light pierced the darkness as he shone his flashlight down the stairs” (159).

Bick’s words are doing double-duty. They not only convey the imagery and action of the scene but they also infuse each sentence with emotional stakes. Never once does Bick’s protagonist feel free of the horror that surrounds her. This is because Bick allows her powerful word choices to accumulate over the entire novel, creating an air of danger that is unconsciously felt by the reader.

Two Great Exercises to Learn How to Do This Yourself:

Exercise #1: Scene Analysis

Pick a scene in a book where you (as reader) felt an emotional connection. Perhaps this was a scene that made you cry, or cringe, or got your blood pumping. Re-read the scene and pick out the words that relate to the emotion you felt. Take a look at those words and how they’re used. Become aware of when a specific word choice affected you unconsciously!

Exercise #2: Write with Word Lists

A great way to use this technique in your own work is to create word-lists. Ask yourself what the emotional mood of the scene you’re writing is (i.e. fear, nervousness, lust, etc.). Now write a list of words that invoke this feeling for you. For example, if the feeling is nervousness, my words list could include:


As you go to write your scene, try to use some of your words. You don’t have to use all of them, and you will easily start to come up with new ones as you write. But when you’re done you’ll find a new emotional layer has been added to your work with the touch of a few carefully chosen words.

If you’re interested in word choice and the use of language, also check out these great articles:

This article was originally published on THE PARKING LOT CONFESSIONAL in 2011. 

What’s Your Intent?

At VCFA we talk a lot about writing with intention, about making choices, and thinking about affect. This is a topic that has been in the back of my mind lately, but was recently pulled to the front of it by the superb film Drive.

The film (directed by Nicolas Winding Refen and staring Ryan Gossling) is about a car stunt-man turned get-away driver who gets mixed up in the wrong deal. It’s not the storyline that struck me. What pulled me into this movie was its poetic quality, its economy, its precision. The music interwove with the imagery, the lighting transitioned you from one point of focus to the next, the dialog was spot on, and the silence was even stronger. This well oiled- machine was carefully crafted, and every choice on the screen was chosen, specific, and created with intent!

The effect was mesmerizing.

This movie got me thinking about words and how we use them. We don’t have actors and lighting equipment and soundtracks to illuminate our stories, we have words. So, which words can create the perfect flare of light, or punctuate a  shift of the eyes, or create the contrast between silence and violence? There isn’t a correct answer to that question, other than to consider your intent. What words, in what arrangement, and in what rhythm and pacing will best bring your intent to light? Every word counts! Every one!

I suggest renting Drive and paying attention to the choices, the pacing, the lighting, the framing of shots, the lingering of shots, and how it moves like a dance or a song. There is something very poetic about this film, pointing out that it is the way a story is told – the choices, the intent – that gives it its power to cast a spell over you. Then pick up a favorite book and pay attention to the words. What makes you feel an emotion? What words pull your focus? What rhythms make your heart race or slow it down? Does the intended effect work? Then think about your own WIP and how you can write with intention. One of the great lessons from Drive (in my opinion) is that every moment is essential, economical, and necessary! It’s a great reminder to avoid lazy writing and to think about the effect of each word we place on the page.

Just a quick warning, if you do choose to watch Drive, please know that it is a very violent film.