Monday, 12 September 2011

Making words work hard

I have been interested for a while in the way that some authors seem to pack much more interest into a given word count. How do they do it?
In all the material I have read about writing I have never come across this as a concept, so here is my take on it. I can't claim to have this completely worked out, but maybe it will strike a chord with other people who could provide some examples.
A word, or for that matter a collection of words in a phrase or a sentence can do a lot of different things. We all know that nouns are things and verbs are actions and these can be modified by adjectives and adverbs and joined together by conjunctions. OK so that gives us a mechanical view of the way words work, but there is an alternative taxonomy that could be applied. Words might describe a scene, or a character; they may create atmosphere, or drive the plot along. They may add back-story, or they may be there to add mystery or suspense.
I'm sure there are better taxonomies than mine but I think key thing is that really effective writers manage to get a lot of words to do more than one of those things at once.
At a simple level I'm sure all writers know that setting a scene will not only describe some physical features, like where the chairs are, but atmosphere could come in the same package and on top of that the fact that a particular character was in that scene might also tell the reader something about the character and it might be telling you something about back-story or adding something to the plot. If each of those things is done individually, the pace slows down and the piece can start to feel wooden and over written. When the same words do several jobs, readers find themselves more engaged because their brain starts to work the way it does in real life.
If I go to meet someone, for whatever reason, it is quite likely that as I walk into the room, something will remind me of another room somewhere in my past, at the same time I may be looking for the coffee, deciding where to sit and trying to remember all the things I was planning to say. I may be subconsciously taking in what the room tells me about the person I am meeting, or about the company he or she works for and maybe getting some signals about body language, or hoping their perfume doesn't make me sneeze.
If I was better at reading like a writer, I'd have stored up a load of examples, which I could drop with panache into the blog, but I'm hopeless at making notes and remembering stuff like that. You might say that if I don't have any examples to quote, how do I prove that it's true. As someone who spent their life promoting evidence based policies and research in health care, I have to say that's a fair point. In part I don't have the evidence because I'm lazy, but also if it's done right the reader hardly knows it's happening. That's the real trick.

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