Tag Archives: diction

14 Feb

How to Ruin Your Novel’s Opening with a Few Wrong Words

Choosing the right set of words–the diction of your novel–is crucial, especially in the opening pages of your novel. Novels are a context for making choices, and within that context, some words make sense and some don’t.

A novel sets up a certain setting, time period, tone, mood and sensibilities and you must not violate this. If you are writing a gothic romance, the language must reflect this. For thrillers, the fast paced action demands a certain vocabulary. Violating these restrictions means a bump in the reader’s experience that may make them put down the book.

Let’s look at some examples. This is from my book, SAUCY AND BUBBA: A HANSEL AND GRETEL TALE.
S&B COVER3-CS.inddJust from the title you know that this is a contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel and this sets up expectations for the language that will be used. This is a first look at Krissy, the stepmother.

Krissy was singing to herself. Gingerbread days were filled with music, too. Once a month, Krissy made a gingerbread house and took it into town to sell to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then donated it to a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and pored over them.

Let’s substitute a couple words and see if it bothers you as a reader:

Krissy was caterwauling to herself. Gingerbread days were crammed with music, too. Once a month, Krissy slapped together a gingerbread house and took it into town to peddle to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then dumped it off at a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and flipped through them.

I’ve been extreme here in word choice, of course. The key is to listen to your story. Where are the places where a single word might interrupt the narrative? Work hard to control your word choices and the overall diction of your story. And I’ll stay with you for the whole book.

27 Feb

How Powerful are Your Words?

Yesterday, I went to a local elementary school to tutor, something I’ve recently started. My second grader, CL, brought a nonfiction, information worksheet to go over. He read through the information on what makes popcorn pop and did pretty well in the reading. But his understanding was weak.

The paper said that popcorn kernels pop because the water in the kernel gets heated up into steam, which cracks open the hard cover and the popcorn pops out.

OK. I asked CL, “What is a kernel?
He didn’t know. In fact, he consistently had trouble pronouncing the word. And yet one of the exercises was to draw popcorn before and after popped.

Even more crucial to understanding the text, I asked CL, “What is steam?”
He didn’t know.

The writer of this informational piece made assumptions about his audience, that they would understand certain vocabulary words: kernel and steam. Further, these words were crucial to understanding the piece. In my opinion, the writer failed in communicating. (Yes, in the context of a school assignment, maybe CL just needed to learn a couple words. But these weren’t presented as vocabulary words; instead it was an informational piece that he needed to comprehend, but crucial information was missing from the text.)

How often do we fail to engage our audience because of our vocabulary, our sentence structures, the organization of our stories. Do you consider audience at every turn?

For fun, go to Up-Goer Five and try to write something only using the Ten Hundred most common English words. How does this compare to your usual writing? How should it compare?


Of course, even when writing picture books you don’t have to worry about vocabulary level because these books are usually read by an adult to a kid. However, you do need to make sure the adult will understand the book. Also, many unfamiliar words can be understood in context.

Vocabulary Level. Make sure your vocabulary levels will be understood by the reader. For unfamiliar words, create a strong context, or define it in the text.

Dialect or Diction. THE HELP was written in dialect and it almost turned me off from reading it. It wasn’t the topic or the events, just how it was told. It’s also part of the charm of the story.

Insult or Bless. Remember, too, that your words have the power to tear down or build up. Yes, in fiction, there are awful conflicts that must be expressed honestly. Yes, characters tear each other down. But overall, does your story end in a note of hope? Does good triumph over evil? I know there are dark stories without hope, without success. But they aren’t the type of stories I want to write. My stories end with hope.

Too Intellectual? When I write fiction, I use the words that are appropriate for my story, words that convey exactly what I mean. And yet, I also know that I tend to be a bit too much in love with my words. Sometimes, I will replace words–for my audience’s sake.

What do you do for your audience’s sake? What are you assuming they will know that will make your communication fail?

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