Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Description by Proximity: a wordsmith workshop

This post is part of a series to augment the Tips for Writing Fiction available for free download.

This and other writing workshops are gathered in my Workshops Directory for you to explore.

Find my world workshops in the Worldbuilding Directory.

When I'm editing my novel manuscripts, I'm often struck by how awesome the English language is. For this workshop, we'll take a look at how you can describe something without actually using descriptors like adjectives and adverbs to do that description. Take a look at this sentence, from my initial draft of Broken:
Example 1: Larin slipped from the city in Jorn's absence, a note awaiting him beneath his door at the inn.
It's a perfectly decent sentence, right? Larin slips from the city, and a note awaits Jorn. Easy peasy. But now take a look at this improved sentence:
Example 2: Larin drifted from the city in Jorn's absence, a note slipped beneath his door at the inn.
This sentence provides a more pungent verb in the place of awaiting him in Example 1. But why exactly is this sentence better? How is it more descriptive than the previous rendition?

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When you read a sentence, your brain parses the words and uses the rules of syntax to stitch together the overall meaning of the sentence. In Example 2, the word slipped describes the note, not Larin, even though Larin is the one who did the slipping.

But though the word slipped does not syntactically apply to Larin, the connotation of slipped rubs elbows with the connotations of all the other words in the sentence, before the rules of syntax divide those connotations into parcels. Larin may have drifted from the city, but she also slipped [from the city] by proximity.

Example 2 better characterizes the note itself, too. Instead of awaiting him like some faithful pet, the note is slipped like an avoidant breakup letter in the back of a classroom. Without revealing events from my Tales of the Known World saga, I can say this simple word change makes the note seem less positive and more foreboding. While not actively sinister, the note now seems to contain some less-than-good news.

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