The aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story. —Aristotle
“In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work,” said Gabriel Garcia Márquez. “In fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work.”
Garcia Marquez is referring to the historical accuracy that undergirds the fictive world. He’s also referring to the fictive accuracy, or realism, created by detail. One single fact. His observation echoes the phrase of another literary renown, Gustave Flaubert and his exhortation, le mot juste—the right word.
According to Flaubert, “Whatever one wishes to say, there is one noun only by which to express it, one verb only to give it life, one adjective only which will describe it. One must search until one has discovered them—this noun, this verb, this adjective—and never rest content with approximations, never resort to trickery, however happy, or to vulgarisms, in order to dodge the difficulty.”
But what is meant by the right word? How do we recognize the right word when we see it? And is there only one right word for a given noun, verb, or adjective?
Let’s leave the last question to the philosophers, as the burden of hunting down a single right word, for most, eclipses our grasp on what is meant by the right word. The point on which we can agree is that some words better serve our purpose than others. Writing, after all, conforms to words chosen and arranged, and based on such choices, readers elevate a work.
All talent for writing consists of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.
We also can agree on the possibility of the wrong word and have little difficulty recognizing it. The wrong word is either vague, clichéd, doesn’t fit the context, doesn’t sound right, or doesn’t do as much as we’d like. To identify the traits comprised in the right word, then, we need only to reverse these qualities.
The right word is true, unique, evocative, rhythmic, and layered.
Notice the conjunctions used in the lists defining the right and the wrong word. It takes but one flaw to disqualify the wrong word. The right word meets multiple criteria.
THE RIGHT WORD IS TRUE.
If you’ve read Garcia Márquez’s fiction, you know how much fantasy one single fact can carry. One single fact is the realism that anchors us to worlds we recognize and lives we identify with. One single fact is the true-to-life detail that allows us to be swept into magical perplexities that remain to us identifiable. It is the truth that convinces the skeptic and sets the reader free.
The true word is complete, as in the whole truth with nothing omitted or reduced, and is aligned with context. A picture hung true is not skewed. The verb, for instance, is strong but not so strong as to sound ridiculous. Eg., He impaled the note with a thumbtack and hammered it to the corkboard. While the subject in this example might feel angry, the strength of the verbs exceeds the force required by the actions and mocks the writer’s attempt to show emotion.
In Flaubert’s terms, the right word is not an approximation or, worse, a vulgarism—a cheap substitute, as in a cliché, label, or superlative.
The precision of detail reduces the need for adjectives to refine the image. Adjectives aren’t bad—provided you save them for enhancing details that can’t be modified by choosing a more specific noun. A one-room apartment is a studio. A ten-bedroom house is a mansion. A suitable tool is a wrench or crowbar or screwdriver. A prophetic person is a prophet, oracle. Drill down to the truest of true.
It is with words as with sunbeams, the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.
The faster the word sticks to the thought, the more beautiful is the effect.
The more words you use, the greater the odds of reminding your readers that they’re reading. Show with the right words, rather than draw pictures with adjectives.
THE RIGHT WORD IS UNIQUE.
“Le seul mot juste,” wrote Flaubert—the unique right word. He used the phrases le seul mot juste and le mot juste interchangably. He sought to capture a prototype, not an archetype.
I don’t observe and I don’t describe; I rediscover.
From precision comes the quality of uniqueness. When the writer drills down to the right word, he furnishes unique attributes to a person, place, event, action, etc. When the writer contemplates the familiar as though seeing it for the first time, he defies cliche with original word choice.
If you haven’t read Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, I recommend the novel. In addition to an engaging read, it makes a fine tutor in the use of detail. Consider the following excerpt.
Perhaps, Harry argued, [the mother’s] water broke while the two were munching deviled eggs in a meadow between shtetls, and perhaps Trachim urged the wagon to dangerous speeds in order to get her to a doctor before the baby squirmed out like a flapping flounder from a fisherman’s grip. As the waves of her tidal contractions began to break over her head, Trachim turned to his wife, perhaps put his calloused hand on her soft face, perhaps took his eyes off the riddled road, and perhaps inadvertently steered into the river. Perhaps the wagon flipped, the bodies plunged under its weight, and perhaps, sometime between her mother’s last breath and her father’s final attempt to free himself, the baby was born. Perhaps. But not even Harry could explain the absence of an umbilical cord.
Deviled eggs and umbilical cord leap from the page, leading reading writers to question the inspiration that fed Safran Foer these details. He simply drilled down. And he kept drilling until he hit the absurd. Deviled eggs and umbilical cord serve his purpose. We read the passage and we laugh.
THE RIGHT WORD EVOKES.
The writer’s word choice is the painter’s selection of color. From a blend of tones, both artists portray an object with a sense of dimension, distance, angle, and lighting. The right word, like the painter’s brush stroke, captures the object in its environment. Rather than outlining yellow, blue, with more blue than yellow and a little white, the writer chooses turquoise. He shows more with less and leverages the reader’s imagination to furnish imagery with imagery.
Behind every word a whole world is hidden that must be imagined.
Today’s readers seek dramatic scenes with action and compelling dialogue. Too much description will slow the writing’s pace and turn readers away. Take cues from performance drama. A play with nothing but stage setting for minutes on end would put an audience to sleep. The equivalent in literature, long passages of description, will tempt readers to skip over them or to give up on the story. Don’t show every aspect of a person, place, or item, show the key aspects, and readers will fill in the rest. Choose details that evoke.
To derive pleasure from a novel is to enjoy the act of departing from words and transforming these things into images in our mind.
Think of your readers as partners. They will imagine, dream, and make associations if you provoke them to imagine, dream, and make associations. You need only to choose words that will spin the film reels in their minds.
THE RIGHT WORD IS RHYTHMIC.
The right word hits the right note and underscores the content in its phonetic delivery. The right word reprises the sound when we read, for example, of tinkling sleigh bells, clanging fire bells, chiming wedding bells, or groaning funeral bells.
A really good sentence of prose should be like a good line in poetry, something you cannot change, and just as rhythmic and sonorous.
Flaubert aimed for a style “as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science.” He strove to prick the reader’s subconscious in the way lyrics penetrate the soul. The right word should echo its meaning while complementing the sentence’s cadence.
I pay particular attention to expressions and words both with regard to their rhythms, their sounds, and the images they evoke.
Listen for the rhythm in the passage from Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On the top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position.
Hear the effect of the rhythm, how it underscores a sense of the ridiculous conveyed in the litany. Calvino alerts readers to the nature of the tale to follow. He not only alerts us, but also whets our appetites. The passage convinces us that he can deliver on his promise—that the tale will entertain.
How is the rhythm achieved? Lists possess an organic beat, but so too does the verb-preposition combo in the first sentence. He could have written sitting down to complete the pattern, but sitting down is wordy (down is redundant). Instead of compromising, he provides the missing syllable in the conjunction or. His list continues with similar patterns, and then, like rhyming in music lyrics, he repeats hassock and bed. The final sentence, though not a list, carries the beat in the appositive head down.
It’s doubtful Calvino gave thought to the devices I’ve delineated. He likely turned his ear to the page and listened for the beat.
The writer must be a musician.
Train your ear. Listen for and make music.
THE RIGHT WORD IS LAYERED.
Exterior and interior detail go together. The right word ties your characters’ worldview or emotional landscape to setting and action. It conveys the detail, as well as the narrator’s attitude toward the detail. If I say Jack is incompetent, I’m speaking at a remove. But if I say Jack is an idiot, I’m weighing in with my distaste. By embodying the character’s point of view in word choice, we see the character’s inner world and needn’t name emotions or bog readers down with description.
Style is as much under the words as in the words. It is as much the soul as it is the flesh of a work.
Imagine encountering a pond populated with frogs. I venture most of us would envision a scene from childhood. But how might a soldier walking the frontline of battle and fearing for his life see the frogs? Here’s Josip Novakovich’s depiction, from his novel April Fool’s Day.
Out of the water-filled craters, rough-skinned gray frogs leap as beating hearts that had deserted the bodies of warring men…
Gray… beating hearts suggest something alive and dead, ghoulish. Death haunts the soldier. He sees fallen men everywhere he turns. But Novakovich doesn’t spell out the soldier’s mindset. He demonstrates it in a commonplace sighting.
Note, too, the rhythm created by the adjectives—water-filled, rough-skinned and beating, warring.
Another wartime example, from Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel”, uses ironic distance both to give readers a fresh perspective and to say more between the lines than another set-up could achieve.
Of course the board had been overturned, and now the whole company of cards was scattered over the floor, where the boots of men trampled the fat and painted kings and queens as they gazed with their silly eyes at the war that was waging above them.
A single sentence, an interrupted card game, and Crane lays out his (narrator’s) philosophy on war.
The whole company… scattered… trampled. The first half of the sentence is a metaphor for the events occurring above—the fate of the defeated, as well as the victorious.
Crane then turns our attention to the floor and hones in on the kings and queens, representations of the power that send troops to kill or be killed. Playing cards, of course, are printed, even in Crane’s day, but he chooses the word painted. It conveys vibrancy, bringing the reds and golds to life—in contrast to trampled men. It also conveys painted kings and queens, as in primped, dressed for show—in contrast to trampled men.
Two modifiers, though… Two vague modifiers, fat and silly, words so elementary as to fly from children taunting each other in the schoolyard, are genius. The simplicity of these words emphasizes the differential between those who decree battle and those who fight. While fat and painted monarchs sit on their thrones, abject men, sent to fatten the coffers, bleed into the soil they covet.
The word silly extends to the object held in the gaze of silly eyes. The fight is ridiculous, and men die without the honor of worthy cause. But look into inanimate eyes perched above a grin. The silly-inanimate combo is the look of a maniac, the look of perverse greed or titilation derived from cruelty. Crane brings the kings and queens to the front as spectators who watch with pleasure.
Alfred de Musset—
Each memorable verse of a true poet has two or three times the written content.
If you attempt to reveal everything without multipurposing in word choice, you’ll end up writing War and Peace, minus the winning narrative. Layering serves the story. It gives this reader an endorphin rush.
MEETING THE CRITERIA
Style, to Flaubert, meant zeroing in on detail to distinguish one thing from another. He gave the following advice to his protégé, Guy de Maupassant, whose works influenced London, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, to name a few. In De Maupassant’s words—
…we have fallen into the habit of remembering, whenever we use our eyes, what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the slightest thing contains a little that is unknown. We must find it. To describe a blazing fire or a tree in a plain, we must remain before that fire or tree until they no longer resemble for us any other tree or any other fire.
“That is the way to become original.”
After repeating over and over again this truth, that there are not in the entire world two grains of sand, two hands or noses that are absolutely the same, Flaubert made me describe in a few sentences, a being or an object in such a way as to particularize it clearly, to distinguish it from all the other beings or all the other objects of the same race or kind.
“When you pass a grocer sitting in his doorway,” Flaubert used to say, “or a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab-stand, show me that grocer or that concierge, the way they are sitting or standing, their entire physical appearance, making it by the skillfulness of your portrayal embody all their moral nature as well, so that I cannot confuse them with any other grocer or any other concierge. And make me see, by means of a single word, wherein one cab-horse does not resemble the fifty others ahead of it or behind it.
The right word. Let’s pull the attributes together and look at a final example. From Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides—
To describe our growing up in the lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day; flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, “There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.” I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,” and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater. My soul grazes like a lamb on the beauty of indrawn tides.
Wow. The sublime imagery paints a landscape infused with aroma and tastes and textures—and communicates the narrator’s attachment without telling the reader, “I love my home town.” Conroy transports us into his world. We taste the salty oyster, feel its slip into our mouth. With wet hands and pants rolled up to our shins, we clump through the marsh, with Conroy at our side, leading us home.
My soul grazes like a lamb. Preceded by any other text, the sentiment would have hit a maudlin note. But not here. Here, in this epicurean setting, the imagery works. The ring resonates true, just, and poetic. We are convinced.
A lesser writer would have talked about his affection for his childhood world. A lesser writer perhaps would have discussed its role in an otherwise difficult youth, thereby tipping his hand and explaining the story to come. Conroy does neither. Conroy invited us to follow him. He appeals to our senses, and so, follow him we do.
Notice, too, that he doesn’t dish up generic seaside details. He makes no mention of fish and of sea and shore, of blue sky and blue water. Instead, he describes its scent in terms, I dare say, none of us would have arrived at. And yet—we can place that scent. …the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater. The exactness and newness of the metaphors ripen on the page. Their freshness draws on our olfactory memory. Yes, we have smelled before what we smell now.
Through detail, through peculiar detail, Pat Conroy takes us to an estuary sequestered like an oyster from the seasides we have inhabited. A single paragraph and he delivers nothing short of a privileged tour.
The right word is true, unique, evocative, rhythmic, and layered.