Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tone and Mood – Choose Your Words Carefully

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor

To bring your characters and scenes to life in a way readers can relate to, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action and situation. And for help in zeroing in on the very best word to convey the tone and mood you’re after, it’s a good idea to use both a thesaurus and a dictionary (either online or print).
Verbs are especially important, as there are so many variations in the way someone can move or speak or eat or whatever, depending on their personality, mood, age, gender, size, weight, background, health, fitness level, and of course the circumstances. So it’s worth the effort to find just the right verb that nails the action and makes sense in the context of the scene. A verb that doesn’t quite fit can be jarring and turn a reader off, whereas finding a stronger, more specific verb can really strengthen a scene and resonate with the reader.

For example, here are just some of the many synonyms for the verb “run”: amble, barrel, bolt, bustle, dart, dash, escape, flee, hasten, hotfoot, hurry, hustle, jog, light out, make a break, make off, make tracks, pace, race, rush, scamper, scoot, scramble, scurry, skedaddle, skip, speed, sprint, take flight, take off, tear, tear out, travel, trot.
Obviously, if you’ve got someone running for their life, you wouldn’t use such light-hearted synonyms as “scamper” or “scoot” or “skip” or “trot” or “amble” or “skedaddle.”

And it’s also important to consider the overall voice of the scene and the inner thoughts of the viewpoint character. Are they the kind of person who would use “skedaddle” or “hotfoot it” in their personal vocabulary?

Here are some examples from my fiction editing of verbs that didn’t quite fit the situation. I’ve changed the names and altered the circumstances to protect the confidentiality of my clients. The comments after each example are from my notes in the margin of the manuscript.
A high-ranking Nazi officer is about to invade the home of a wealthy Jewish family during the Second World War. The author wrote:
“He giggled inwardly, thinking about the chaos he was about to bring to the Jews who lived here.”
My comment to the writer was:  The verb “giggled” fits a couple of schoolgirls, not a nasty Nazi. I suggest “smirked” or “gloated.”

Or, from another novel I edited:
“Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning.” 
Jodie’s comment: “sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe just “walked” or “went” or “trudged” or “dragged his feet” or “found his way” or even “stumbled” back to his office.

And another novel I edited years ago had military personnel repeatedly “strutting” across the room, compound or base, when the author meant “striding,” as in “he strode across the barracks,” instead of, as he had it, “he strutted across the barracks.” According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “strut” means “to walk with a pompous and affected air,” or “to parade or show off.”

Similarly, don’t have healthy, active people “shuffling,” even for measured or slow walking, as “he shuffled over to the table” implies the movement of an old, ill, drugged, or exhausted person. Merriam-Webster describes shuffle as “to move the feet by sliding along without lifting the feet” or “to perform with a dragging, sliding step.”

And don’t use casual, relaxed language in a stressful situation. Choose words that reflect the urgency, tension and conflict.
Before: “David’s cell phone rang. It was his wife Carole, who was three blocks away in her office, babbling hysterically. He yelled for his colleague Todd, grabbed his jacket and headed for the elevator. When they got to street level, David jogged towards Carole’s office building. Todd ran comfortably by his side. When they got there, he found the area crawling with police.”
Jodie’s comment: Best to not use words like “comfortably” at a time of stress. Choose words that fit the mood and tone of the moment better. Even “jogging” could be replaced with a word that indicates more urgency.
One possibility: “When they got to street level, David took off running towards Carole’s office building. Todd raced to catch up.”

Also, there are a lot of nuances for showing a character looking at someone or something. The verbs “glare,” “glance,” “scan,” “peer,” “study,” and “gaze” have quite different meanings, for example.
“Brock glared at the intruder with the gun, eyes wide with fear. He shifted his stare to Gord, mouthing, ‘Help’.”
Jodie’s comment: “glared” doesn’t go with “eyes wide with fear.” Glared is for anger. Maybe “stared” here? And “shifted his gaze”? Or maybe: “Brock’s eyes widened with fear at the intruder with the gun. He shifted his gaze to Gord, mouthing, ‘Help’.”

“At the funeral, the widow caught Peter’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.”
Jodie’s comment: “squinted” is like against the bright sun. I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”

Also, for maximum power, in most cases it’s best to choose the active form of verbs, like “chased” rather than “was chasing.”

If you haven't already, it's a good idea to start a new Word file and call it “Thesaurus” or “Synonyms,” then make lists for the verbs you use most in your writing, like walk, move, look, run, eat, drink, etc. That way you can quickly find lots of variations and try them on for size. It's definitely worth the bit of extra effort to capture just the right word for the situation.
See also my companion article, “TheThesaurus is Your Friend – Really!” over at Crime Fiction Collective.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, August 2012

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.



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