Forging Stories 2: The Tools of the Trade

Ursula LeGuin has said that an artist’s job was to “put into words what cannot be put into words.”  Writers, she says, must do this with words.

Using words, we must capture action, character, place, and emotion. The words that portray the world in which our story exists must be accurate, immediate, sensual, and true.  They must convey the plot with vitality, simplicity, and relevancy.

How a writer uses words is the single greatest determinant of whether a story succeeds or fails in conveying the writer’s vision. It matters little if the story contains the most exciting idea since the foundation of the world; if the writer doesn’t know how to use words, the excitement will not be communicated to the reader. The story will fail.

Proper word use is a matter of trust between the writer, editor, and reader. Editors need to trust that the writer knows both his tools (words, syntax, grammar, etc.) and his subject matter. If the editor can’t trust a writer’s use of words, he may not be inclined to trust that writer’s knowledge of the subject.

Unfortunately, there are a myriad ways to misuse the tools of the writer’s trade. There follow some examples of the type of tool misuse I often see in the manuscripts I’ve critiqued.

Misuse of words often begins with word choice. The writer is unsure of the precise word to use and comes up with a complicated substitute.

One manuscript of my acquaintance said that “The army “attacked from under apparent total surprise.” The precise word the writer was looking for was probably concealment as in, “The army attacked from concealment and caught the enemy by surprise.”

This is similar to what happens when a writer gets stranded between two ideas: “Derek began to wonder what effect this was taking on his mental state.” The writer was torn between wanting the character to wonder “what effect this was having” and “what toll this was taking” on his mental state. So, he split the difference.

Words can also be easily mismatched: “Apart from the location of the Ertu ship, Derek was concerned about everything else in particular.” Now, the word “particular,” by definition, is too particular to include “everything.” “Everything,” by nature, is general rather than particular. The two words together form an oxymoron and cancel each other out.

Another common problem occurs when the writer loses track of the parallel structures in a sentence: “The strategy kept the enemy off balance and easily destroyed.” In this example, the verb “kept” applies to both “the enemy off balance” and “easily destroyed.” A quick reading of each clause of the sentence with the active verb could have alerted the writer to the problem. To wit: “The strategy kept the enemy off balance.” That works, but, “The strategy kept the enemy easily destroyed” — not so much.

Then there’s the mixed metaphor: “Stomach tight, hunger gnawed at his lanky frame as he pressed forward, but fear churned in his brain like a raging volcano.”

It’s usually a good idea to make sure that metaphors are consistent. Otherwise, the reader can be left with some very peculiar mental images that may lead to unintended humor. In the above case, three separate implied metaphors may surprise the reader into envisioning hunger as a small, voracious animal that has attached itself to our hero’s pant leg, and fear as a combination butter-churn/volcano that’s trapped in his transparent head. These are cartoon images and not at all what the writer intended.

Next time: Writers are often told to use “active voice”. What does that mean and what effect does it have on our prose?

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Forging Stories 2: The Tools of the Trade — 2 Comments

  1. And when you’ve avoided the mixed metaphor, also check that the metaphor comes naturally to your character and setting.

    And then you look at loading the metaphor for effect. It matters whether the hero’s hair is leonine or the color of straw.

  2. You can dial this way, way up if you are anal about it. The story is told of the late great Mary Renault, author of all those historicals set in Ancient Greece. She not only pruned out anachronistic metaphor — as a Bronze Age hero, for instance, Theseus could never steel himself before combat, right? Nor could anyone ever have steel-blue eyes or put iron in his spine in THE KING MUST DIE. Renault went so far as to prune out as many words as she could of Latin extraction, substituting in Greekish words or Anglo Saxon if there wasn’t anything Greek — physicians/doctors.