Words are more than just a vehicle for our stories. They’re a writer’s medium. We paint with prose and sculpt with sentences. Language is like some ancient, malleable magic we channel into an infinite number of spells. It sets scenes, establishes character, and conveys action. But a true mage goes beyond these essential functions. The right words can evoke sensory experiences, create striking images, and play irresistible melodies in reader’s ears. How can you harness the wizardry of words in your writing?
Sense and Sensibility
Readers have many senses; engage all of them! There’s the classic five—sight, sound, touch, taste, smell—but don’t stop there. Emotions often manifest as physical sensations. There’s proprioception (the sense of one’s own body parts and movement) and chemical feelings like breathlessness or an adrenaline rush. Use your writer’s sensibilities to determine which sensory details give the best impression of a scene, character, or experience.
Rich sensory detail immerses the reader in your story, turning printed words into a vicarious experience. The imaginary world emerges as a place readers can hear and touch. A scene set in an amusement park needs observances like the shriek of roller coaster riders and the sweet, oily aroma of funnel cake to bring readers to that familiar place. If they’ve never had the experience you described, let them live it vicariously through your story. Make it real. Capture small, unique details to convey the essence of an experience.
Details add more than appearance. The right details allow readers to infer things. For example, I could tell you my room contains a sofa, a lamp, and a desk. It’s a list of furniture, nothing unique about it. But if I say “the tattered arm of the sofa elbowed the leg of the desk,” you might picture a cramped, shabby space. “Light from the single bare bulb revealed socks lurking under the furniture like skittish mice” suggests the occupant isn’t much of a housekeeper. Which description evokes a more interesting image?
Choose Striking Words
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” according to Mark Twain apocrypha. Thanks to ruthless pillaging of other languages, English offers marvelous diversity. Mine this hoard for all its riches and choose the most precise word available:
- Is that “boat” a yacht, aircraft carrier, cruise liner, barque, or caravel?
- Is its “red” flag scarlet, crimson, ruby, auburn, or vermillion?
Each word carries a far more specific meaning than its generic root. Evaluate the connotations of similar words: “glitter” is cold like diamonds, while “glow” is warm like a candle flame. Selecting one or two striking adjectives also eliminates heavy clusters of description that can weigh down your prose.
Word choice is especially critical with verbs. “She walked down the street” conveys action, but “she marched/lumbered/skipped/strutted down the street” offers a dynamic visual packed with extra meaning about the character and her mood. Adverbs may not be pavers on the road to hell, as Stephen King famously suggested, but they’re red flags that indicate weak verb choices. Instead of “he ran quickly,” tell us he sprinted, dashed, galloped, or tore.
S&M (Simile and Metaphor)
Similes and metaphors create opportunities for inventive imagery. It’s easy to tell the difference between the two:
- Similes use “like” or “as” to make a direct comparison between two things. Vladmir Nabokov described “elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.”
- Metaphors imply comparison between disparate things, such as “the curtain of night” or T.S. Eliot’s personification of fog as a cat: “The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes/Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening….”
These devices can bring freshness and depth to writing. With deft handling, they even add layers of symbolism. But they’re also dangerous territory for clichés.
The word cliché sends cold dread dripping down most writer’s backs. These phrases are so overused, they’ve effectively lost meaning. (Fun fact for your next trivia night: the word cliché comes from the French term for the sound of a printing plate that stamps out canned text.) We can divide the cliché family into several sub-species:
- Idiomatic expressions: scared to death, cold shoulder, fish out of water.
- Stale similes: white as a sheet, brave as a lion, dead as a doornail.
- Dull descriptions: lapping waves, rustling leaves, a gnarled oak
These pernicious verbal shortcuts infest our daily speech and can creep into our prose. Nothing says “lazy writing” and turns off readers more quickly than a page full of such unoriginal language. Check out this most wanted list of more than 600 clichés, and be vigilant if they try to sneak into your story. With all the marvelous words out there, why limit yourself to prepackaged ideas?
Feel the Rhythm
Words have music. Writers are conductors, presiding over an orchestra of sounds and blending syllables into symphonies. Short, monosyllabic words create a staccato rhythm. They speed up the tempo, providing an ideal pace for action scenes. Longer words and sentences flow, sweeping readers along like an elegant musical passage. Tuning your ear to these cadences will help put an irresistible beat in your prose.
- When you write all your sentences the same way, your prose becomes flat. The pattern lacks variation, making a dull drone of your story. Readers might fall asleep, lulled by the soporific cadence. You’re writing a novel, not a repetitive commercial jingle. If you want to write well, you’ll have to change the tempo. (Notice something strange about this paragraph?)
- So hit hard. Keep them alert. When you vary sentence lengths, readers have to pay attention. Make every line a surprise. Long, mellifluous sentences can convey things, too, and you should accord them appropriate space in the narrative. But balance them out. Vary the rhythm of sentences. Play your words like a set of bongos, tapping out different rhythms that tantalize the ear. (Isn’t that more interesting?)
Go forth and write!
As English historian Edward Gibbon observed, “the style of an author should be the image of his mind, but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise.” Word wizardry takes practice. Most of the techniques discussed here apply to revision more than drafting, but the more sensitive you become to the magic of language, the stronger your powers become. Keep working, and soon you’ll rule the world of Wordcraft!