The question has been asked (paraphrased here) “How does word choice and sentence structure affect the reader, and how can we do our job as writers better?”
It’s a big subject and I could teach on that for days at a con. But for here at MW, I think one agonizingly long blog (smiles) broken up into two or three short blogs will cover the subject. And I’ve pulled out some tried and true writing examples for this purpose.
As with any topic about writing, there are the macro devices and effects and the micro devices and effects. And I think it all comes back to (maybe?) a subtitle under pace. Pace on the macro level can be described as the speed of the conflict development, or the speed at which the story develops When a writer is doing a good job pacing 1.) story arcs, 2.) character development arcs, 3.) scene anchoring, and 4.) stays in character voice, then the macro and micro parts of word choice all fall together.
For the purpose of this blog, I’ll concentrate on Macro pace and Micro pace as they relate to voice, story, and the emotional reaction of the reader.
Macro is the events per page or chapter.
Micro is the pace by line and word.
Just a rule of thumb about sentence structure:
To increase the pace, use shorter sentences and sentence fragments.
To decrease the pace, use longer, more descriptive sentences.
The reader hears the increased or decreased pace as well as reads it. A well crafted scene can and will affect the breathing and heart rate of a reader. But, as AJ mentioned in his recent blog, when a writer tosses in nothing but short sentences and fragments, the reader has no time to reflect or pull it all together, and so needs the longer, more complex sentence in the midst of the shorter one to regroup.
I’ve used the these examples in other blogs, so if they seem familiar, well, they are.
Awful sentence structure ex:
His dark blue eyes and pinpoint pupils touched me where I stood, trapped and shivering in the corner, dripping wet and wrapped in my floral towel. He took a single, long step toward me and wrapped his fist into my hair as he pulled me close. I noticed the strong smell of cheap wine on his breath as he smiled.
Breakdown of what is wrong with this example.
His dark blue eyes and pinpoint pupils (two things where the reader should feel one) touched me (Just touched? Where is the menace?) where I stood, trapped and shivering in the corner, dripping wet and wrapped in my floral (who cares that it’s floral? If I had paced the scene properly, I’d have mentioned the towels earlier, before the menace started.) towel. (Are we waltzing here? I’m trying to write a scene that should grab and slap the reader emotionally. And this sentence does not do the job.) He took a single, long step toward me and wrapped his fist into my hair as he pulled me close. (Ditto) I noticed (passive word choice in an action scene slows every thing down.) the strong smell of cheap wine on his breath as he smiled.
It just didn’t work. A better version:
Pinpoint pupils in dark blue eyes speared me. Trapped, I backed into the corner. Pulled the towel closer to my dripping body. Shivering. With a single step, he reached me. Twisted his hand into my wet hair. Pulled me close. The scent of cheap wine rolled over me, a wave of fear. And he smiled.
Pinpoint pupils in dark blue eyes speared (menacing word choice) me. (The sentence is not broken, but it leads into shorter structures.) Trapped, I backed into the corner. (Action and reaction is predator / prey response. It resonates in our primitive hindbrains.) Pulled the towel closer to my dripping body. (Fragments can increase tension.) Shivering. With a single step, he reached me. Twisted his hand into my wet hair. Pulled me close. The scent of cheap wine rolled over me, a wave of fear. (Longer sentence, now, the reader gets to regroup, and active word choice, despite the fact that it’s about the character’s reaction.) And he smiled.
Notice the difference in rhythms – ex1 is waltz-like and thoughtful. ex2 is more like a machine gun. The word choice is emotionally cleaner and sharper. If you want to take the bad example, or even the better one, and make it even better, go for it!
If you don’t own a *really* good thesaurus, one that offers and explains the emotional nuances of individual words, then I suggest you get one. It can make all the difference in the world to your writing.
I’ll pick up on word choice next week.