Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rise, Take Up Thy Bed, And Walk

(This is not a post about healing or miracles. I hope to keep a semi-permeable barrier between this blog and religion & politics. Unless the religion is Puritan or the politics is Whig I don't want to hear about it and will try not to bring it up)

This is about Writers Mantras #11, 12 and 13.
  • Put not your hope in adjectives nor prepositional phrases, either.
  • Modifiers in general should be replaced with stronger nouns and verbs.
  • Use a thesaurus as often as you drink Tabasco.
 Some people say that religion is a crutch. I won't say (remember that semi-permeable barrier). But I will say that a modifier is a writer's crutch.

Expression can be a difficult thing. The thought in your heart may be hard to put into words. So, you pick a word and you think, "that's not quite right" and you modify it. The car is not just a car, it's a fast car. No, that's not right. It's a fast, orange-red car. No, there's more. It's a fast, orange-red, brand-new car. No. It's a fast, orange-red, brand-new, pimped-out car.

Or maybe not. "Nick had the roadster up to 150 mph before Nora could blink." Yeah, roadster works better than fast car, doesn't it? It evokes thoughts of the top down and wind in your hair much more than fast, orange-red, brand-new car. Sure, the roadster is evocative of a more vintage auto, but you needn't burden all the details of the roadster's description in one sentence.

The role of the prepositional phrase is similar to that of the adjective (not your friend, remember) or the adjective. It serves as a flying buttress steadying the noun or verb that it is modifying and adding something lacking from it.

Expression can be a difficult thing. The thought in your heart may be muddled--too muddled to put into words. So, your hero Nick Charles will have a car and it's gotta be awesome because Nick is awesome. Uh. It'll be fast. Yeah. And it'll be--uh--orange-red. Yeah. And uh, brand-new. No, pimped-out. Enjoying my stream of consciousness? More like a stream of unconsciousness.

Fix in your mind your hero. And the car he's driving and how fast he goes. Get it clear in your head. Then choose the words that say the most with the least. Like roadster says more than car alone.
  • Use a thesaurus as often as you drink Tabasco.
Use the words that already live in your head. Don't talk to strangers. Those big fancy words that smart folk use can easily make a Dogberry out of you. Dogberry? Yeah, Dogberry. Remember him? Don't be that guy.

You should feel a tension here, because I've suggested eschewing thesaurus words just after I exhorted you to use evocative words that may only live in a thesaurus. I believe a writer ought to have a tumescent vocabulary, but not a turgid one.
(If you are wondering about the earlier Writers Mantras, you can start here.)

1 comment:

  1. But I enjoy Tabasco sause... The thesaurus isn't by itself the problem. What happens is that a weak writer finds a word that the book claims is a synonym and plugs it into the passage without bothering to see what it actually means. You're correct to say that most of the time, the simpler word is the right one.

    With cars, being specific matters when it's part of the character's personality--think Morse's Jaguar or Columbo's Peugeot--or important to the story. Otherwise, just call it a car.


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