There are a lot of words in the world. So many in fact, I’m inclined to believe that if all of them could be linked together, you’d have a word-chain long enough to stretch past the boundaries of the universe. That said, I can’t help but wonder why, with so many words at our disposal, is it so difficult to choose the right ones when we need them. As a storyteller, I’m always hunting for perfect words, words that will evoke particular emotions. The problem is I often use too many non-perfect ones, which winds up diluting the intended effect.
When considering words, I also have to wonder about the ones we do choose at times. Words like forever and always and never. In a three-dimensional world, those three words don’t actually have substance because no human has truly experienced any of them before. They’re idealistic words used predominately for impact, and, in my opinion, all three should be governed by some sort of Word Law. That way their true meaning, as we know it, remains intact. An example of such a Word Law might be…
· The use of FOREVER, ALWAYS, and NEVER is strictly prohibited in any
context, unless immediately followed by the word UNLESS.
– Ex: “I’ll love you forever . . . unless you don’t change that one thing you do
that drives me nuts.”
– Ex: “I’ll always love you….unless I don’t get my way anymore.”
– Ex: “I’ll never stop loving you . . . unless I simply choose to.”
– Ex: “I’ll never forgive you . . . unless I need something from you.”
– Ex: “I’ll always treasure this gift . . .unless I get pissed off at you, then I’ll
throw it away.”
You know, it’s pretty rare to find a person who’ll think through words and consider their potential impact before allowing them out of their mouth. What usually happens is we let our emotions and selfishness piss words out at will, good ones and bad ones.
Oddly enough, the opposite seems to be the case when it comes to writing dialogue in fiction. In order to keep our characters ‘in character, we have to carefully consider the intent and motivation behind the words we give them to speak. Then, of course, the narrative has to follow suit.
Back in school, one of my English professors used to say, “Keep it tight and right,” every time he handed out a writing assignment. That was his way of reminding us not to use words we didn’t need or mean in any part of the story. I have a tendency to forget that, especially when writing narrative. For example, if I wrote, Her life ended in an old hotel on August 29th at 11:28 P.M., would you think I meant that figuratively or literally? Did SHE physically die in an old hotel? It’s hard to tell without reading more, right? Although the actual meaning might be revealed in the next few sentences, the point is…do I WANT to leave you with the impression that she literally died? Is that what I meant to do, or was I aiming for a different effect and missed the target?
What if I wrote this dialogue—male character sharing his feelings with a woman—”I love you, baby, white-hot and forever. You’re the other half of my spirit, the One I’ve been searching for all my life. I want to marry you, be with you every moment of every day for the rest of my life…” What kind of man does that dialogue portray? How would you envision him?
Now suppose, further along in the story, I add narrative that shows this guy leaving the woman because he fears another man might steal her away at any given moment he can’t physically be with her. The thought alone causes him so much stress and fear it’s easier for him to dump her than it is for him to work through the issue. Would that narrative cause you to see this man differently than you did earlier? If so, is that what I meant to happen? And if I meant for you to see him differently, to what extreme? In other words, did the dialogue cause you to feel all warm and woogly about the guy, then suddenly this narrative comes along and you found yourself wanting to castrate him? If it did create those extremes, was that my intent or did I simply screw up and write overkill?
Keep it tight and right—easier said than done, isn’t it? Or in a word . . .”Oy!”