Hello, diction, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision
That was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
It's always great to crib from Simon and Garfunkel, isn't it?
So, Susan and Matt's comments in the last post got my brain churning on one of my favourite topics, and one which I think we don't always pay enough attention to as writers. And it's not that it's sneaky, or forgotten... but maybe just that it's so obvious we don't stop to give it a lot of thought.
This is what we do, isn't it? As writers we pick words, and word choice is central to the expression of our stories and intentions. Yet how often do we really talk about it? We surely jabber enough about POV and tense and prologues and flashbacks and voice... and yet what is voice but a careful selection of words to create a particular sound and effect?
We dream something, and yet we hold these silent words in the silence of the act of writing. They rattle inside our head, sounds waiting to escape, or perhaps merely the great meanings beyond sound, vibrating on some frequency we can apprehend and yet never hear.
So, we have to pick the right words. We have to pick entertaining words, powerful words. Unique words, at least in their proper combination. I think many of us often fall back on what's easy, however. It's only natural. This is the challenge of word choice. We have a scene in mind, we're inside it, seeing it... and now we need to translate it into words so that this vision can be shared. The easy words come first. Familiar words, the ones we've heard in the same context. Certain words are simply expected... the reader's brain expects it and the writer's brain provides it. Basic meaning is created and consumed. But only so much, only a little. A deeper understanding, a new undesrtanding that peels back layers and allows you to see something newly, freshly, brightly... this isn't always possible with those overly familiar words.
When you're excited, your heart... pounds, of course. But this is a cliche, it tells us very little. The character, the experience, is no different than any other that has ever occurred, its individuality lost in the endless repetitions of that phrase.
So how about a brief investigation of diction? I'm gonna use a bit of Cormac McCarthy's prose for demonstration. Now, there are lots of other interesting things about his writing, like his odd rhythms and his use (or lack) of punctuation, that people will like or dislike. But his word choice is something that really fascinates me, because he rarely accepts the overly familiar unless the overly familiar is perfectly right. Here's the opening line of Suttree:
Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.
This is a single long sentence, and yet look at the word choices, at how strange and vibrant they are. Look at the "dusty clockless hours", for example. "Dusty" is an odd word to describe "hours" and yet it's evocative, while at the same time serving a dual purpose of reflecting that meaning onto the streets, as well. It provides both an abstract description and a literal one, applying to both the ephemeral hours and the physical street. And "clockless"? I think the word that most writers, even good ones, would reach for here would be "timeless". And yet "clockless" is newer, its sharp sound providing much more punch. It offers many of the meanings of timeless, and yet it also reflects again, using that interesting duality, on the nature of the town itself. These words reach beyond themselves, touching the story around them, moving beyond familiar lands to form new boundaries.
And then you have the combined words, like "watertrucks" and "lightwire". The last, in particular, is vivid, with the "wire" part bringing in the idea of a lit filament, the electric shock of an unshielded light.
Then we have the drunks in the "lee" of alley walls, a subtler and much more fluid way to suggest shelter than to simply say "shelter".
And the "highshouldered" cats, so odd and yet so right. You can picture those pointed shoulder blades jutting out as the cats slink along... slink along in the "grim perimeters about". Such a strange selection here, too, and yet evocative. The texture of "grim" against the sense of danger implied in "perimeters", the idea of conflict, of war, of areas being patrolled. And that grimness is only enhanced by the descriptives, the "sootblacked brick" and "cobbled corridors". Grim, dirty, hard.
And then we have perhaps the oddest choice of all, the "gothic harp" of cellar doors. Image, or metaphor, or allusion, or merely a capturing of mood? All of the above? It's vivid and different, the sense of the gothic perhaps summarizing all that has come before, providing a final definition for the grim perimeter of sootblacked streets and highshouldered cats.
So, what do you think? What sort of things do you think about when you're trying to find the right words? And who are some of your favourite writers who use words in a really interesting manner?