OK. Last night I pretended to know something about movies, and talked about the kind of subtle acting you used to see in good films—particularly the kind of acting that’s done with the eyes. The thing about eye acting (if I can call it that) is that it’s a sort of visual subtext. It’s not like in a script, where the directions say, “Rufus goes to the window and looks out.” The eye acting is something the actor himself adds, and it probably hasn’t been explicitly written out in the script.
So how can I claim that there’s an equivalent in fiction writing? If you can’t write it in a script, you can’t write it in a story either, right?
Well, not exactly.
How many times have we heard (and said), “It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it.”
“But that’s about tone of voice and facial expression,” you say. “If you describe those things in a story, it’s not eye acting. It’s stage direction—‘Stop!’ John said commandingly. Or ‘Stop!’ John said with an angry frown. There’s nothing subtle about that.”
Ah, but there are other ways. Chief among these is word selection. Word selection is to writing what eye acting is to film.
Look at this bit of prose, which I’m composing on the spot. It’s not deathless literature, but will do to illustrate my point:
William stalked down the sidewalk. His back was rigid. His face was impassive. “Betty,” he hissed. “Where’s Betty? I’ve got things to say to Betty.”
Now compare this paragraph, in which all the physical action is precisely the same:
William strode up the sidewalk. His back was straight. On his face was an expression of profound contentment. “Betty,” he whispered. “Where’s Betty? I’ve got things to say to Betty.”
I haven’t changed anything that William does in these two versions. But the words I chose to describe him suggest two very different emotional states on William’s part—and two very different meetings coming up with Betty.
These examples are pretty crude. The effects you can achieve through word choice in the English language can, because of the huge selection of vocabulary choices we enjoy, convey very subtle differences in meaning. “Melody” and “tune” are technically the same thing (I think), but have different implications. Is the woman’s coat red or scarlet? Your choice in describing it will subtly alter how we think about her. Is the animal a dog, or a pooch or a cur? It all depends on how you want the reader to feel about it (or the person describing it).
Just as beginning actors don’t usually know how to eye act, beginning writers generally don’t understand word choice. As the actor must practice expression in front of a mirror, the writer must expand his vocabulary—not only learning technical definitions, but poetic implications. Studying word history helps. It also helps to study one or more of the primary languages that went into the great stew that is English—Any of the Germanic languages, French and Latin.
Words are magical things, and most of us haven’t even begun our sorcerer’s apprenticeship.