“Dogs” or “mastiffs”? “Beer” or “ale”? It really does matter.
Every author who has ever stared at a blank page knows the primary difficulty in telling a story: whatever we write begins immediately to constrict us, to constrain us, into telling a certain type of story.
In short, if I begin by describing a space battle between two fighter ships, I’ve suddenly narrowed my tale to a science fiction piece. I can’t very well turn it into a Victorian romance, or a fantasy tale set in a completely imagined world. The opening even might restrict our tone. Starting off with an adventure beat doesn’t allow me very easily to slip into a romantic scene—doing so would require a little setup. Nor does the adventure scene naturally allow me to leap into a flashback where our protagonist felt a terrible loss when his best friend moved away. Once again, we’d need more setup.
So the scenes that we begin with define and narrow the kind of story that we can tell, and at a much smaller level, our word choice does the same.
An author needs to be precise in his use of language in order to avoid confusing a reader. I like the quote from Mark Twain who is credited with saying that “The difference between the precise word and one that comes close is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
The lack of precision in word choice can be shown in a number of ways.
1. The writers don’t choose words that properly resonate within their genre.
For example, if you’re writing a Tolkienesque fantasy, you wouldn’t send your protagonists to eat at a local “restaurant,” nor would you have them eat a “hamburger” or have them drink a “cold beer.” Those words all suggest a modern setting, like the Wendy’s just down the street from my home. Instead, you’d try to use words that evoke a fantasy setting. Your characters would go to the local “inn,” where they might “feast upon a wild swan,” while drinking “warm ale.”
2. Very often a writer uses a word that is close to what he or she means, but is not quite right.
For example, you might say “she said,” thinking that a dialog tag is needed. But sometimes a dialog tag doesn’t really convey what you mean. Perhaps you might need to say “she swore.” Very often, writers will get so used to using “said,” that they will use it when the speaker is actually asking a question. “Are you going to eat that?” she said.
A similar thing might happen when you’re talking about a home. Does your character live in a manor, a mansion, a cottage, or a duplex? A wealthy character might well talk about his “summer cottage,” while a poor neighbor might consider the same building to be an “estate,” since it has its own golf course, horseback riding trails, and a private lake.
3. Sometimes a writer uses a pronoun where a noun is better.
The writer might start off a chapter with: “He ran for his life.” Well, if there are three viewpoint characters in your novel, you’d better let us know up front who “he” is. So you might say “Bron” ran for his life.
4. The author uses a group description instead of a precise description.
New writers will often say that “The trees bunched together, casting deep shadows over the lonely trail.” Well, there are thousands of kinds of trees. Do you mean pines? Then say pines. Or did you mean coconut palms, or willows, or eucalyptus? Each type of tree creates a very different image. If your character is being chased by a “pack of dogs,” for heaven’s sake, tell me what kind of dogs I should be imagining. Are you talking about wolves? Dingoes? Mastiffs? Hounds? Tail-wagging Chihuahuas?