Monday, November 26, 2007

Language Lyrics


Princess Iseult of Brittany,
Hugh Wallis,
c.1904,
Eric Slack Collection.

A few weeks ago Charles made several pertinent posts on the use and value of ending one's sentences/paragraphs with strong words.

Of course, if you screw up your parallelism or construct a series with an unintended anti-climax, all the strong words in the world will not save you.

But with the usual kiss of the fingers to subjectivity, what words are vivid, solid, strong?

Off and on, I've been playing coroner with this concept, because, sans dire -- but I'll say it anyway -- word choice is the heart of writing.

Without effective language, our prose will be relegated to a John Doe toe tag and a cold vault.

Words depend (1) on image. Concrete, specific pictures. Or quick, recognizable abstracts.

Blade, sword and knife are strong words. Stronger than weapon.

Fear is a stronger word than anxiety.

Words depend on (2) resonance, on our cumulative, cultural history for their strength and power. For their images. An abstract like liberty, for example, includes the resonance of blood.

Words also depend on (3) stress, emphasis, sound, to ring true .

In poetry every word must count. Poetry dissects the mechanics of sound, of assonance and dissonance, of weight and force.

Of rhythm. Of pulse.

Iambic (~ ! )and anapestic (~~!) meters are usually considered the strongest line endings, with trochaic ( !~)and dactylic (!~~) stress patterns the weaker.

Perhaps blunt force trauma words are stronger than words with trailing syllables.

And then there's Tennyson:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot.
....

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs forever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.

But it's never simple. The force and jolt of certain words also depends on concept and context and on their relationship with other words in a sentence.

In isolation, weapon may be a weaker word than blade -- it's mutiple, it's general, it's dactylic -- but it may strike like a pole-axe when used, as I have seen it, abruptly in a thriller.

Sleep is a weapon.

Probably the best advice on chosing strong words is the suggestion that you trust your ear.

Read your words aloud.

And listen.



34 comments:

writtenwyrdd said...

In my experience, the words that can be most visceral are the old Anglo Saxon words rather than their Norman French descendants. Or, similarly, the small little words are the barkers, and the longer, multi-syllabic ones the whimperers.

Glint vs. scintillate, etc. Not to say that ones intentions do not call for the use of 'scintillate' over 'glint.' Far from it. Mythic style prose, which I've been toying with this week, is lyrical and allows one to be more poetic in language choice and more distant in narrative.

StarvingWriteNow said...

I totally agree--reading aloud is so effective, and definitely helps get the wince-inducing errors out of my writing.

Neat post!

SzélsőFa said...

Since English is not my first language I often write while humming the words to me, in my head. It means I'm often hearing what I'm putting down on my virtual paper. Sometimes I hear my words coming to a criss-cross, a jungle of consonants and strange vowels. That's where I stop and ask whether I can find a better substitute.

Bernita said...

"Barkers" vs. "whimperers"
Neat, Written!
Mythic style prose allows for the tones of the troubadour to be heard over the harp.

Thank you, Starving.
I've found that too.If you stumble, something makes you trip.

"jungle of consonants and strange vowels"
You have the secret, Szelsofa.
I think of writing always as a translation.

Julie said...

I think I turn up subvocalization as I write and edit - seems like the equivalent of looking at an oil painting in a mirror. The reverse image shows up flaws immediately.

As a rough rule of thumb, I find if something won't scan to read out loud, (or in the inner ear)it often won't scan full stop.

This post is like a magnifying glass concentrating rays of sunlight....!

Jaye Wells said...

This technique is called "back loading." A handy way to check for it is to highlight the last word of each sentence on a page. Of course, you don't need it on every line, but it's a handy tool for ramping up tension.

Jeff said...

It's amazing how much one simple word change can impact a sentence.

Bernita said...

Subvocalize...yes, Julie. That's the word. We should both "see" and "hear" the lines.

Thank you, Jaye. A good way to make one stop and focus.

Certainly is, Jeff! Though it's not end-use, have
lways been struck by an example from Dryden's MacFlecknoe
"The rest to some faint meaning make pretense,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense."

Charles Gramlich said...

This is completely true. Words have a music that is so important to me in writing, particularly with fiction. This is why I actually have a hard time listening to music when I write fiction, because it masks the music of the prose I'm trying to construct.

A beautiful sentence read out loud is sheer pleasure.

Great post.

Bernita said...

That's it! Thank you, Charles!
I have always avoided playing music when I write but never defined the reason further than a sense of distraction.
A sentence is like a musical composition and the instruments and their notes have to harmonize.

raine said...

This is why I actually have a hard time listening to music when I write fiction, because it masks the music of the prose...

I'd never thought of that either, just the distraction of it.

Lots of great points in this, Bernita. I've always gone with gut instinct when choosing words. This'll make me more aware.
Excellent post.

Vesper said...

There's always something interesting to learn or just think about in your posts, Bernita. Very good one!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Raine.You have trained your inner ear.
The benefit of the wise advice to read much and widely.
The rhythms and the word choices have become instinctive, natural.

Glad you find them so, Vesper. Thank you.

Dave F. said...

Over Thanksgiving, I read a chunk of what I thought was funny dialog to my Niece. I couldn't read it out loud with mistakes. Now when the author can't read it aloud... It's wrong. So it's back to the edit and revise function. If I can't read it aloud, then no one else can read it.

Stewart O'Nan gave a reading from one of his books years ago at the Border's Book Store here. He spoke of deliberately writing slow and long sentences to create a mood. He didn't say which novel it was, but it has since been published. He said the novel was finished, he was going back to create the tone and mood sentence by sentence.

Evil Editor posted several openings (Wed, Nov 21, 07)) from recent novels. Cormac McCarthy stood out with the opening from "No Country for Old Me." Made me want to see the movie. That says a whole lot for me.
(BTW I tried reading Blood Meridian and his style gives me headaches).

One of the other openings EE posted that reads well was from "Love in the Time of Cholera," by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. The language is so gentle and flowing and yet, sad. It reminds me of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde - straining to reach a resolution. Read it aloud and listen to the musical qualities of it. The loss built into those few words is an echo of the entire story. The style is almost as sparse as McCarthy's. Each word serves a purpose.

Bernita said...

Dave, I strongly agree about that snippet from No Country For Old Men.
I did not react the same way To Love In the Time of Cholera.

Church Lady said...

I think Ray Rhamey (Flogging the Quill) does this in many of his line edits. He doesn't really explain it, but when he restructures a sentence, it's a totally different read.

I loved that post by Charles. I'm hoping he'll do more eventually.

And I bought and read "No Country" after EE's post. Truly excellent.

Scott from Oregon said...

I think trust in your own inner soundscape is important. Trying to use "rules" to govern word choice makes much of what I read "sound" constructed.If you have no musicality in your mind, you won't see it in writing.


Also, I've seen much writing lately that stacks one abstraction on top of another, all in an effort to "sound way cool". SO I completely agree in the notion that keeping your images and ideas out of the abstract trap will better connect writer and reader, which is, after all, the agreement a writer desires.

Julie said...

Is one facet of the 'not listening to music while I write' (which I share)that it is impossible to hear music without an emotional reaction, subtle or not.

How then place words which all have emotional nuances and impact as part of the whole symphony?

Sets up a cross current....

Demon Hunter said...

Great post and great advice, Bernita. This is something I need to know as I'm in the middle of a re-write. :*)

Bernita said...

Ray's ear is often pretty acute, Chris.
Me too. Charles on Craft is good stuff.

Piling on abstracts is lazy, Scott, imo.They need to be balanced by the concrete.

Well put, Julie. "Cross currents" is the usual effect it has on me and I loose my own beat.

Thank you, my Demon. If a passage sounds "flat" to you, annoys you, trust your instinct.

Gabriele C. said...

Style also depends on genre to some extent. For example, I use a lot more alliterations and metaphors in my Sword & Sorcery than in my Historical Fiction (though I don't exactly avoid alliterations there, contrary to Teh Rulez). Arachaic words have a place in Fantasy, but not in a modern mystery - except if you write a paranormal mystery dealing with mythic creatures that belong in the Fantasy realm. The other way, to write fe. Historical Fiction in modern language, can work, but it can also jar (like Scarrow's overuse of the f-bomb in his Roman novels). And there's the unique author's voice we're supposed to develop. I think that one is most difficult for writers who work in very different genres, like say, historical romance and SciFi. Hist Fic and Fantasy isn't that far apart.

Bernita said...

Very true, Gabriele, but I'm thinking more of the breves, crochets and quavers, the legatos, glissandos and arpeggios that make up style and voice.

Travis Erwin said...

I agree with you. Trust your ear.

I think the truly great writers trust their ear, voice and stories. That confidence rubs off on the reader and they too become confidant the story is taking them someplace they want to travel.

Julie said...

I've been influenced by two marked social extremes and find the temptation to juxtapose the phraseology and verbal 'feel'hard to resist but tricky to handle; the resulting 'sound' can be atonal!?

(Working on developing voice in middle ground).

Bailey Stewart said...

I have found that having someone else read to me helps, because they may put a different emphasis on a word that I might - totally changing the direction of the sentence. I know where it's going, the reader does not. Hearing it from someone elses lips shows me the flaws in the construction of the sentence from the readers point of view.

Bernita said...

That's an interesting perception, Travis. You may be right.

I don't see why it should, Julie, each can lend vitality to the other- unless as in the example Gabriele mentioned, it's overdone.

Bernita said...

Bailey, you have a tame vocalist?
That's a double plus!

Kate Thornton said...

The gentle rumble of the clothes dryer - not unlike the rumble of my stomach - is the only music I like when writing. It has a warm, natural sound. I try to write like the dryer, in a circular, flowing pattern until I need the thump of a tennis shoe hitting the sidew of a paragraph and the loud, startling electric buzz that tells me I have reached the end.

Great post, Bernita, as always!

The Anti-Wife said...

I've given and written several speeches and been in plays so I'm used to reading everything I write aloud. What looks good on paper may sound awful. It's a good way to check your work. Great post.

writtenwyrdd said...

Unlike Charles, I find that the music I listen to while writing can help me focus or draw the mood out that I am seeking to portray.

Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks.

pundy said...

Valuable advice.

Julie said...

Thanks for putting your finger on the spot of overdoing it - that's key.

I have opportunites for public speaking and that has raised my awareness of how words resonate
with people... much more aware of emphasis on the end of lines, for eg (or style and word choice if I've been speaking to students or older people).

Bernita said...

That's a sweet and effective simile, Kate! Thank you!
~I love my dryer~

There's never just One True Way, Written.

Thank you, Pundy.

Thank you, AW. Very true, vocal experience is a great assist, also because, as Julie mentioned - feedback!

Shauna Roberts said...

A good post, Bernita. Doubly so, because it elicited many interesting comments. I aim to make my prose lyrical, but I lack confidence in whether I achieve it. Having written nonfiction at a low reading level for so long, I instinctively now aim first for clarity and simplicity, short words and short sentences. Sometimes that results in prose that clunks.