What’s in a Word?

- by Elaine Isaak

Hi.  My name is Elaine.  And I’m a poet.

That’s right.  I used to write poems–all the time.  They were like my first love, practically an obsession.  I’m finally over them now, but sometimes I still miss them:  that shock of inspiration, the desparate sussuration of pen on paper, the thrill of an image captured in a few words, crafted into spare phrases broken at just the right moment.  But I’m not here to tell you that I’m done with poetry now that I’m a novelist:  I’m here to say that being a poet has made me a better novelist.

 Novelists are used to stringing together long, lovely sentences and paragraphs, and sometimes overlook the contribution of the single word, and how that word might form the reader’s impression of all that follows.  One of the trickier and more subtle aspects of fiction for new writers to grasp is that of tone or mood. It’s not something we always go into the work thinking about, and we tend to treat it as an aspect of setting (dark woods=creepy).  That’s fine for a start, but being a poet, so focused on the choice of a single word, reminds me that that single word can change how a moment is construed by the reader. 

A single word can change the way a character is perceived (skinny, thin, or lithe; the vast difference between “said” and “sneered”) It can make your plot seem tight, or haphazard, as when a character “accidentally” performed a heroic action.  If she had meant to do it, I would have cheered.  That single word spoiled the moment for me, leaving me disappointed in the character–and the author by extension.

It’s often a matter of connotations rather than denotations.  The denotation of a word is its dictionary definition.  The connotation is the psychological baggage it brings along, often based on the culture applying it, shades of meaning that you might not find it Webster, or even be able to articulate, but which give the word a positive or negative cast.

I’m currently revising my next book, reading through my editor’s comments on the text, and noticing how often his confusion is based on a single not-right word, or his reaction to a character comes from that one choice.  We often get wrapped up in the big-picture elements of fiction: plot, character, action, theme–and forget that we are at the mercy of our most basic tool, the word.  Or maybe that’s poetic justice for you!

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