Fiction is like Legos. It’s built out of a series of different units, stuck together. Each new level of unit is built out of a clump of previous units. The more units you have, the more complex effects you can achieve by moving them around, putting them in different configurations, making different associations, etc.
What units am I talking about? Starting small and working up: letters, words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, sections, books, multi-book story arcs.
Most of the time, creative writing advice focuses on things that matter at the middle levels: stuff like plot and characterization and setting that build up over the course of a scene or a chapter or a book. The assumption seems to be that everyone has already learned all they need to know about the words-to-paragraphs level of writing back in grade school, so that by the time people get to the point of trying to write a novel, they can jump right in learning about scenes and chapters and plot skeletons and so on.
Now, what I learned from Sr. Agnes and Sr. Winifred back in grade school was essential and invaluable, and I got a long way on just those basic rules of grammar, syntax, etc. Eventually, though, I came to a point where those basics weren’t enough. I knew how to build letters into words and words into phrases and phrases into clauses and so on, but I wanted more. I didn’t just want to build large, square Lego houses. I wanted to build Lego dinosaurs and airplanes and astronauts. And to do that, I needed to understand more than just how to snap one block into the next. I needed to know how and why they fit together, starting from the smallest units.
Yes, from the smallest. Most people don’t even think about letters; they’re just sort of there. They string together to make words, but as long as you run the spelling checker and aren’t making up your own language, you’re probably right.
Yet letters have the first key property of all these building blocks that’s important to writers: sound. It’s predefined, and the only way the writer can control it is by choosing words carefully, yet the sound of a word can be just as important as what it means. Words with gutteral or harsh sounds give things an unpleasant feel; they’re a good way to add a creepy undertone to a description or a conversation without being too obvious. More smooth, liquid sounds, like oo’s and l’s, tend to make things flow peacefully.
Sound provides all sorts of tools, from alliteration to puns to rhyme. And sound gets really important when it comes to dialog. You don’t want to give your characters impossible tongue-twisters to yell in mid-battle, or hand a talking snake a line like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” “She sells sea shells,” on the other hand, would fit a snake just fine…if the snake has a thing for alliterative tongue-twisters.
Some people are extremely sensitive to the sound of words, even when they are reading silently; others only notice the sounds if someone is reading the story aloud. Writers who fall into the second category need to remember that there are plenty of sound-sensitive readers out there, and do occasional checks (reading aloud) to make sure they haven’t chosen words that don’t sound right for the situation, or that don’t fit together properly.
You have probably noticed that I’m talking mainly about the sounds of words, even though I’m supposed to be talking about letters. This is going to happen a lot in this series of posts, because many of the key properties of a particular unit of fiction only become useful to writers at the next level up, when you start snapping the Lego pieces together. You can’t change the sound a particular letter is supposed to make, or the standard spelling of a word, but you can choose words with an eye to their sound, as well as their meanings.
Which brings us to words.
What you do with words is, you build phrases, clauses, fragments, sentences, etc. Most people do this more or less instinctively, once they’ve learned to talk, but the real nitty-gritty of how writing works starts with words, with how they work, with how they relate to each other, and, later on, with the different effects you can get because of the different properties they have.
The very first key property of words is one that most writers have heard over and over: specificity. Specific, concrete words nearly always have more impact and are more effective at conjuring up an image than abstract words or general words. A “flaming sunset” has more impact than a “beautiful sunset;” a “brown car” has less impact than “a brown Lexus” or even “a brown convertible;” “he went away quickly” is less evocative than “he fled.” This doesn’t mean a writer can/should never use abstract words like “beautiful” or generic ones like “car;” only that if one does, one should probably examine them to see whether the “low impact” effect is what the writer really wants (and, if not, whether there’s a less abstract, more specific word that will do the job instead.)
Next up: more about words, with specific reference to parts of speech.