Shambling Toward Word Choice

When most writers think of precision in writing, they think of it in terms of correct word choice. While there are plenty of great blog posts and pages about that (titled vs. entitled, imply vs. infer, effect vs. affect), what I'm talking about is precision in word choice when it comes to action and description. Especially in horror novels, using a single, precise word can often do the work of a string of lesser words - it can help set atmosphere, convey emotion and frame of mind, and describe an action, all at the same time. One of my favorites tends to frequent Stephen King's books: the "shamble." Great, chunky, creepy verb - you don't want a demon shambling toward you, cuz that would suck. So much more than if it were merely moving toward you.  

And precision is a blade you can wield to hack through all kinds of writerly tasks, from choosing an exact feeling (is your protag shocked? Or dismayed?) and action (is the thing crying or keening?) to description (does he have skinny hips? Or economical flanks?) precisely nailing atmosphere (is the room quiet? Or does it ring with silence?). In horror, the right word can make all the difference. And since tightening the dread for the reader is the only way to invoke true horror, you want to lean on those "right" words as much as possible. When you crystallize that moment of dawning horror as the killing blade is raised, you spill more than blood when it comes whistling back down - you'll spill the moment all over your reader, who can only blink, horrified, at what's happening - and then turn the page for more.

What about you? Do you have any favorite, muscle-y word choices?


Anonymous | March 16, 2010 at 10:58 AM

Oh, what a great post!!! I REALLY need to work on word choices.

I'm using the following excuse for justification: I used to know words before I went to medical school--now I know abbreviations, LOL!

I'm linking back to this post in this Week's Links on Saturday. ;)

Zoe C. Courtman | March 16, 2010 at 11:18 AM

Thanks for commenting, Laura. (And one of my posts gets a link back!!! Squee! That's awesome - thank you!) So often I'll sit there and wrack my brain for the right word when I'm trying to invoke horror or capture the exact feeling in a room. It's hard! But I find that constantly striving for the best word, the exact mood, the perfect description makes it easier as you go.

divaluxe | March 16, 2010 at 12:34 PM

I know EXACTLY what you mean, even though I don't write (or read) horror. Unfortunately, I can't think of a single example right now. Other than my recent love for and usage of, "Squee!"

Zoe C. Courtman | March 16, 2010 at 12:37 PM

Hi, Maria! Who doesn't love "squee"? Sometimes, only a good squee will do :) Thanks for reading :)

Lydia Kang | March 16, 2010 at 4:05 PM

Great post. I struggle with this all the time. And also not going overboard and turning it all into purple prose.

Zoe C. Courtman | March 16, 2010 at 4:32 PM

Hey, Lydia. Thanks for the comment! I try not to give in to purple prose either - but it happens. (Thank god for the revision pen, right?) And this is where precision writing comes in handiest: if it's getting too florid, bogged down with too many purple adjectives, stop writing, think about the *exact* thing you want to say, and then find that single, exact word that nails it.

Elana Johnson | March 17, 2010 at 2:30 PM

Great post! I like to use "whisper" all the time. And it's lame, but I don't use it when someone is talking. It works about once, and then it's overkill.

Zoe C. Courtman | March 17, 2010 at 2:51 PM

Oh man, Elana, if you only knew how many things whispered madly in my work. *lol* Always having to go back and hack 'em all out in the end, except for that one that works. But at least it's not "gibbered." I think Lovecraft ruined that one for all of us :)

Post a Comment