Words have power. They can make or break your story in many ways, because if you use poor words, your story will also come across as poor.
I realize many people get advice from one of the two extremes: ignore prose and get the story perfect, or else get the prose perfect or your writing is awful.
Turns out, they’re both right in a few ways and both wrong in many ways.
You see, story is important and it should be your first focus. However, the second type of advice is also correct in that you need good prose. Good prose gets you published and recognized and makes your story stand out from the hordes of new stories demanding your audience’s attention.
Your prose matters.
Your words matter.
What do we do about them, then? What words do we incorporate and which do we not? Do we go back to the days of Tolstoy and Lewis and Tolkien and Dickens, back when the words were as big and detailed as possible? Back to when we could get away with entire chapters describing one thing? Or do we stay in the modern world and use new lingo and new words with a laid back, casual tone?
Ousting Preconceived Notions
Before we begin, I’m going to say this: I love both styles. I love the grandiose phrases that permeate the classics, but I also enjoy the chill language and casual sentences of modern works.
So here’s the deal: I know you might have a preference. I do, however, want to ask that you do this: don’t shut out the other style completely. They both have a place, and both can convey powerful stories with great themes and characters and plot and prose.
Let me, then, ask you to drop two more things you may not even realize you’re holding:
1. Don’t try to copy the classics. For one, you’ll fail if you try. They knew what they were doing far better than you. For two, it’s super obvious when you’re trying to do this, and then your reader knows you’re not being original. Basically, you can write pretty prose without trying to become the next Dickens. You can write archaic style with esoteric terms and not sound pretentious.
2. The casual style of today is not an excuse to be lazy with your prose. Good modern style isn’t lazy. It isn’t about picking any old word. You still have to care about your words and which ones you use. They’re simply less rigid, long, and thesaurus-ly exhaustive as books from fifty-one hundred years ago.
Let’s toss aside our preconceived notions and actually ask the question: how do I decide if this word is the right word for my book?
See, the style can often lead to interesting word choices. The question is: is it the right word choice?
The remainder of this post is going to end up being short bits about different aspects of your story and audience to consider when choosing words for your prose.
For instance, when choosing a word, you have to consider your audience.
How old are they? The younger they are, the more careful you have to be. If they won’t know what the word means, you might be cautious in using it, and when you do use it, provide enough context for them to be able to puzzle it out.
Are they reading this for stimulation or entertainment? If your book is mean to entertain more than to stimulate deep thought (which is fine, both aspects can and should be given time in books), then it’s more likely your reader wants smaller, simpler words and a more laidback style.
So. Consider your audience.
When you use a word, you have to be careful with your character as well. For instance, I have a character named Deyu who’s a slave girl. She can neither read nor write, and doesn’t know any number higher than four.
So when I writer her character, I have to be careful with the words I use. I have to describe them the way she’d see them. She would see five things, she’d see four things and one. She wouldn’t use grandiose terms, she say things were big or really big, not towering or massive.
Other characters may be the opposite. Intellectual snobs may have a large, over-exaggerated vocabulary.
As you make word choices, don’t forget the choices you’ve already made. If you’ve written most of the book in simple prose, you can’t introduce huge vocabulary and massive chunks of purple prose in the last three chapters.
That’s disturbing and off-putting for your reader.
So be consistent. Let your words stick together in a coherent and blended fashion.
Use powerful words. Make choices that will make your story stand out in its own style, and in the world of books as a whole.