I have a friend who is French, and despite years of living in England, he uses a vocabulary that is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. He became a legend when he referred to a top-down convertible as a ‘topless’ car. (I am so looking forward to the SEO results of this first paragraph.)
I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and one of the narrative strands is in the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian who speaks very little English.
In an attempt to seem more educated and impress the hero, Alex is, as he himself would put it, ‘fatiguing his thesaurus’. In his account, people sitting around a dinner table or at the wheel of a car are ‘roosting’. If something is nice or good, it’s ‘premium’. If a character is standing still they are ‘reposed’; annoyed is ‘spleened’. Alex’s choices are often unintentionally ridiculous, and he has no idea of their appropriateness or connotation.
This creates various literary effects in the novel, which I’ll come back to if you’re curious. But actually, a lot of writers – across all types of fiction – choose words that make their action or characters unintentionally ludicrous or comic.
In times of trouble
This particularly seems to happen with dramatic moments.
In a fight, the heroes might be ‘whacking’ and ‘walloping’. A vulnerable character might get their hand ‘squashed’ under an attacker’s boot, or ‘bounce’ down the stairs. These words might be accurate, but they have a comic ring that ruins the atmosphere. In a scene where a much-loved character is found murdered, there will be ‘blood-splattered’ walls. (Try this instead from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’) Someone discovers the body and lets out a ‘squeal’ or a ‘squeak’ – which sounds jolly instead of appalled.
This might happen for a number of reasons. Quite a few of my clients are merry souls even though they write dark stories. Or they’re trying to make a description dynamic, but in their vigour they pick a word that has gusto instead of menace. Or they’re trying to be accurate about what’s in their mind’s eye – after all, blood probably does splatter and spurt from a slashed artery. The trouble is, it sounds slapstick.
In prose, words suggest pictures and atmosphere just by their shape and sound. Those beginning with ‘s’ seem to be especially risky – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unfortunate appearances of squashed, spattered, squatted, squirmed and squelched.
Ear and eye
To control our text fully, we need to develop an ear for the mood suggested by a word, and for how it looks on the page. This is different from the way they might work if you were describing the scene to friends, who would have your personality and vocal delivery to disguise the odd inappropriate word. Similarly, you might be led astray if you read a lot of scripts instead of prose. Screenwriters don’t have to be so sensitive to these subtleties. They are presenting instructions for an experience that will come to life in other media.
But on the page, you are creating the actual experience. Your word choice is your tone, the personality behind the scene, the theme music, the lighting. We have to examine these qualities every word we use, both its sound and its shape. Look at that Thomas Harris line again, about a gore-splattered room: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’
In Everything Is Illuminated, the word choices appear oafishly comic, haphazard; mangled, even. As with all well-executed tomfooling, this belies a great deal of skill. Each odd word has been chosen by the author with great care, with an eye and ear for the grace of a sentence, for how jarring or surprising it might be, and to encourage us to think of what it might really mean. And this clumsiness also gives the narrator a great transparency; he is so unaware of other connotations his narrative has a quality of charm and honesty.
Choose synonyms with care.
Do you have trouble picking the right synonym? Do you have any examples of writers whose descriptions hit the spot for you – or don’t? Let’s share in the comments!