Shades and variations. How to write a novel — part 12

It occurred to me as I read through some of the stories submitted by my students, that many of them missed opportunities to enhance their work through shades and variations. Like most writers, they were working with a deadline, so I can appreciate the weight of the monkeys on their backs. Who has time for nuance?

The answer came quickly. Writers must make time for it, else why bother writing? Like artists working in any other medium, writers must command the tools of their trade. They must also develop specific skills, like those required to hunt for nuance–t0 find the exact word that fits a given situation.

Air Guitar at 50Consider the sentence: Bertram walked down the hall in his underwear. How many different ways might ol’ Bert traverse that stretch of floor? He could saunter, stroll, skip, slide, slouch, stampede, sashay, shimmy or stumble, and he’d only have put a dent in the stockpile of S words. Best of all, each alternative offers a different shade of meaning for “walked.” And yet, each has the power to alter the sentence–and possibly the whole story–in significant ways.

seductive woman in sexy lingerieThe range of reaction is wider than you might think. Based on the specifics of the character those words are applied to, readers will react even more differently. Just consider the profoundly different views afforded by the retreating forms of middle-aged, overweight Bertram and that of the reigning Playmate of the Year. All of a sudden sauntering, strolling, skipping, sliding, et al. generate an even wider range of motion. And thank the Lord for that!

The other benefit of taking the time to select the proper words–and by that I mean verbs, words that do the heavy lifting–is the reduced temptation to use some sort of modifier. Nuanced words rarely need adjectives or adverbs. They’re superfluous. The verb shoulders the load. You’re happy; I’m happy. Shoot, Hemingway is likely giggling and laughing, too.

Death to adverbsHere’s what I tell my students: “Avoid words that end in -ly.” Save the shading and variations for words that actually do something, not those that hang around pretending to work, like surplus supervisors on a road crew. Spare me from sentences like: “Bertram walked slowly down the hall in his underwear.” I’d much rather read that he played air guitar and accompanied himself with an oral bass line while maintaining the rhythm with his tap shoes.

Or show me a photo of Miss Hot Pants. Any year will suffice.

Next up: I’m not sure! Call it potpourri.




About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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