At one time, scientists believed that the human taste scale could only distinguish four flavors–salty, sweet, bitter and sour–and that from that minimalist scale you could distinguish pizza from pasta, ice cream from lemons.
Today, they are claiming we have a wider range, perhaps as many as 20 or more to help us form our gourmet appetites, create our magazines full of new recipes each month, or go into the Top Chef Restaurant Wars. How can this be?
Like flavors, the romance language speaker has a limit of 26 letters to work with in communicating all levels of emotion, imagery, conflict, and information. Yet for centuries we’ve done just that. Do you have a favorite letter? How ’bout a favorite word?
I love words. Wouldn’t be a writer, I guess, if I didn’t. When I write I don’t mind the editing process because there is always a word or two to look up and play with.
When my nieces and nephews graduated from high school, I used to buy them Webster’s Collegiate Dictionaries as part of their graduation presents. This was, of course, in the days before personal computer ubiquity, and tablets, and smart phones, and whatever the next generation of incredibly powerful yet minute size computing will exist. But a good dictionary is important to have and to play with. Even for this blog post I’ve looked up a few words already.
Here’s my point. Precision in word choice is both a game and an important part of story-telling. Connie Willis gave a talk at an RMFW Colorado Gold writing conference a few years ago where she talked about an author who wrote a story about a submarine adventure in World War II. She quoted the story dialogue–“Dive! Dive!” said the captain into the thingy.” We in the audience roared our appreciation. We got it. Not that “thingy” isn’t a perfectly fun word to use, but this example shows the importance of precise word choice.
This week, I came across a very good writing prompt, in Story Engineering, the book I told you about a few weeks ago. Larry Brooks works from the premise that people are driven by resentment. He says, “We resist that which we resent,” and goes on for a few pages about how this resentment gives us motivation for revenge, and sets up some great story opportunities as a result. Then Mr. Brooks asks his reader to try an exercise in resentment:
“Make a list of all the things in your life, both close and at arm’s length, that you resent. Then notice how that resentment influences your attitudes, behaviors, and decisions toward people or things. Pay attention to how each entry makes you feel. And then, in turn, how it may influence how you act.”
Can you write a story between two people who resent each other? Will the conflict they act on be a mountain or a mole hill that represents years of resentment?
Here’s where word choice comes into play. Mr. Brooks used the word “resent.” He could just as easily have said, “begrudge,” or “hate,” or “loathe.” But the word “resent” was his choice, and the part in the dictionary written in parenthesis is what made the lightbulb come on for me:
“resent: to be angry or upset about (someone or something that you think is unfair).”
Thanks to Merriam-Webster Dictionary for this definition.
The second I saw the word “unfair,” all the feelings from preschool on where I felt angry and victimized came forward. I might easily have stumbled in this writing exercise if I hadn’t had a precise definition for the word, “resent.”
And now for the contest part . . .
Here’s an idea. Why don’t you do the writing exercise Mr. Brooks suggests, then write a short story (800 words or less) to send to me? I”ll try to select a story to publish on this blog with the “winner’s” byline, and send a press release about the contest and your story to a few publishing contacts. You never know. You might be the next Ogden Nash.
Okay, so every contest has rules, and here they are:
- Be original–no copying from somebody else’s stuff
- Be brief–absolutely no more than 800 words (title excluded)
- Be broke–sorry, I don’t have any give away items or money for this contest
- Be on time–Deadline is June 9, 5:00 pm mountain time.
- Be resentful–No, you don’t have to use the word “resent,” but it must show in the story. Choose your words carefully.
- Be happy–this isn’t a big contest with awards, fame and fortune. We’re just doing a writing exercise together. Have fun with it.
Good luck with this. Have a wonderful writing week.