What’s in a Word: Emotional Atmosphere

layout_writer_chichester_05Like all writers, I have a special relationship with words. In my case, I love them. I am fascinated by the way they work (or fail to work), the myriad ways in which they can be misunderstood, misused, even abused by people who don’t know any better or who should know better or who abuse words with malice aforethought.

I know some writers who have a love/hate relationship with words, who claim they hate using them but love having used them. I don’t get that at all, so I’ll leave it to someone else to blog about that. This blog is about the use of words to create emotional atmosphere.

As a writer of fiction, I rise or fall on how well I can use words to create an atmosphere in which my characters live and move and in which my readers exist with them during the length of a story. Words are symbols. They are signposts. They are colors. They tell the reader how to view a place, a person, a thing.

There are two parties to this, of course, the writer has to know how to use the words, but the reader has to know how to read them. This requires a shared knowledge base or shared experience or, at minimum, a shared definition and/or connotation for the words.

I’ve experienced the disconnect of using words of which a reader has no experience. Recently, I used the word “chops” to have one character describe another’s skill with something. My editor asked what the word meant. In my particular milieu, it’s usually used to describe a guitarist’s skill with his instrument, but I’ve heard it used to describe any skill, including my own ability to write (apparently) realistic dialogue. I prefer, for the record, the more colloquial “fu” as in: “You have amazing verb-fu, Ms. Bohnhoff.”

But, I digress. 

If I’m writing a scene in which I want you, Dear Reader, to be scared spitless, I may place you (or the character you care about) alone in a place with scary elements: dark, unfathomably deep water. Vast open plains shredded by relentless, hissing wind. A looming, lightless house whose windows stare down at you like blank eyes.

Colt_Detective_SpecialDid you catch the “loaded” words? The ones that—if we are on a similar wavelength—build emotional atmosphere? Without saying as much, I have hinted that there is some unknown in the water that you can’t see. That the wind is an invisible, but implacable, snakelike adversary. That the house is watching you and that you cannot gauge its intent.

Human beings are often afraid of the unknown. While it offers excitement and challenge to some of us, to many—possibly most—it sets every nerve on edge.

Similarly, I may try to terrify you with my description of a presence as vaporous, oozing, elusive, or describe a character as towering, or hulking with an impenetrable expression. Again, it is the lack of ability to know the presence or the person that I’m banking on to scare you, because in our society, the unknown—the “other”—elicits a special “Eek!” response in our reptilian brains.

darth-vader1When I watch a character in a film put their hand in a hole, or through a crack in the wall, or through a door that is slightly ajar, it is the total terror of their unknown (but dimly suspected) fate that makes me pull the afghan over my head and quake. Darth Vader, whom I have written several times now, is supposed to be terrifying because you cannot read his intent. He is the Unknown in BIG, CAPITAL LETTERS.

Art imitates life, imitates art.

Is a 6 foot 3 inch, dark-skinned eighteen year-old male a “huge” and therefore “dangerous” man or is he “an unarmed teen”? Is he a “thug” who is “no angel” or is he a “typical teenager”. Is his alleged crime a “felony”, a “strong arm robbery” or “shoplifting”? Did he “smoke marijuana” or was he “stoned” or “high on drugs”?

That’s up to the wordsmith. And what that wordsmith chooses to tell you about this person will shade how you respond to other things you may read about him.

I read a description of another young, dark-skinned male as “behaving erratically” and “menacing” policemen with a knife. I watched a video of the event embedded in the article. Oddly, though I had been prepared to see the young man—Kajieme Powell—as behaving erratically, that’s not what I saw. If I had not known that he had just stolen some pastries and sodas from a convenience store, I would have thought he was just waiting on the sidewalk for someone to pick him up. His pacing along the curb would not have aroused my attention had I been passing by on the street. When the police arrived, they interpreted his behavior as erratic as well and, when he had gotten within about nine feet of them with both arms at his sides (they alleged it was three or four feet and that he was brandishing a knife in an “overhand grip”) they opened fire, shot him about a dozen times and killed him.

For me, the police description caused cognitive dissonance, because what I saw did not match what I was told I would see.

The same day, I read a second article that chronicled the police shooting of a tall, robust, middle-aged white male. (None of these physical attributes are described in the article, by the way.) The man is described in the beginning of the article, not as “behaving erratically” but as “possibly suicidal”. The fact that he was aiming a handgun at passersby with his finger on the trigger is described as “waving what appeared to be a gun”. After negotiating with the man for over an hour, one of the officers fired one round and shot him in the leg.

Again, the words I read caused cognitive dissonance because what I saw (a man with a gun aimed at anyone within range of his weapon) did not match what I was told I would see. In fact, the words “threat” or “menace” appear nowhere in the article.

newspaperHere’s my quandary: How many people only read the articles—or worse, only read the headlines—and do not watch the videos, assuming that what they are told will match what they will see? The logic has appeal. After all, who would post a video that didn’t match the written description of the events? Apparently, some media and news outlets would.

Behind these bits of telling one thing and showing another, there is a writer—a skilled wordsmith who conditions the reader and sets the atmosphere—with their calculated use of words. To be sure, their accounts are not necessarily wrong. But they are, at the very least, highly subjective and work on the assumption that words such as “possibly suicidal” or “behaving erratically” produce a similar meaning in the minds of readers. This is why when I read manuscripts, I caution writers not to give descriptions such as: “He was behaving erratically” or “He was acting in a threatening manner”.

Tell me what he was actually doing and let me decide whether it seems erratic or threatening. Whether a writer is writing fiction or fact, he will give the reader a clearer vision of a subject’s behavior which, in either case, ought to be his goal.



What’s in a Word: Emotional Atmosphere — 3 Comments

  1. OTOH, there is the question of whether your POV character would notice the details but only have it register as “He was behaving erratically” or “He was acting in a threatening manner”. . . .

    And subtle loading your language is a wonderful tool. You can give your a heroine a white, a red, or a green dress, but that will not carry half the freight of
    * a snow/swan/pearl/lily/bone/salt/diamond/cloud white dress
    * a blood/rose/sunset/flame/ruby red dress
    * a leaf/poison/spring/emerald/parrot/apple green dress

    (Yes, those conjure up subtly — and not so subtly — different colors. I find that in most cases, the freight is probably more important than the exact shade.)

    • Certainly when the way a character describes something, you’re also dealing with how that character communicates. But I think the narrative voice needs to be more explicit than that or the reader can’t visualize what the character is doing.

      I think the one-two punch there—getting the reader to feel and see—is to have a character say “He was behaving erratically—pacing back and forth between the car and the streetlight, his steps serpentine and halting, his gaze in perpetual motion.”

      And yes, subtly evocative words, perhaps metaphors, are sheer joy to use in trying to paint a picture of a character, a place, an object.

      Just look at the different perceptions you can evoke by describing a woman’s skin as “pallid” or “pale” or “alabaster” or “fair”. They all convey the basic idea that the woman had light-colored skin, but “pallid” evokes images of someone in ill health, while “fair” hints at attractiveness.

      I’ve found I struggle more with trying to describe non-fictional events or situations because it’s second nature to me to reach for evocative, textured words. When I write fact-based articles, I spend much time looking for ways to keep my reportage neutral until called upon to give an opinion.

  2. One can say many things about Robert A. Heinlein, but I still remember the sense of enlightenment the opening part of “Methuselah’s Children” brought to my early-teenage sense of what can be done with language, by his having one character analyse the semantic loading of news reports.