Friday, September 7, 2018

Good Words and How To Use Them


In my last post, I promised to offer the words that really get writing to move. These magical words are not specific, like George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” because then everyone would use the magic words and they would lose their power. This is about making a few words stand out – and this is best done through description.

In an earlier post, I discussed how to describe things efficiently. The key was to not use a bunch of words to describe a character’s hair, eyes, skin tone, teeth and so on if they are not important to the plot, but rather give the attention to that one feature that is worth mentioning. This is where the good words come in. We make things memorable by a quick, efficient description that uses only a few words to bring out a huge amount of information (This is why I wrote about haiku in a recent post – efficiency of words is a building block for description.)

Jim Henson's Yorick, in all his macabre glory
In his pre-Sesame Street days, Jim Henson had among his puppets a purple skull-like creature named Yorick (based on the jester’s skull scene in Hamlet, I assume). When Yorick entered a sketch, he would start eating whatever was present – scenery, props, other puppets, anything. He would slowly, relentlessly gobble down the entire scene (this classic sketch on YouTube says it all.) I have spent a lot of words describing Yorick, and hopefully they filled in the scene for you.

Jim Henson described Yorick as, “a living hunger.” That’s it. That’s all. And yet, those three words did more justice than my whole paragraph. Even though Yorick did not go on to Sesame Street (and likely for good reason,) those three words make him a memorable puppet.

The stand-out part of that description is that it took a quality – hunger–   and attached a modifier that would normally be useless in describing someone. If I called myself a living author, the living part is noticeably useless, even distracting. But when attached to something not even considered living, it becomes memorable. It stands out.

This is the form of narrative description referred to as the salty-sweet style. It may not seem like a natural blend at first, but the combination of two different forms makes one memorable item (try bacon and vanilla ice cream if you don’t believe me.) We use these sensory mismatches all the time – so much so that we might not even notice them. A colorful outfit can be loud, a sound can grate on us, a taste can be sharp. Gradually these become commonplace, even boring. But as a writer, it is our job to explore new ways of mixing things up.

Descriptions become memorable when they utilize any of these simple tools:
  • Sensory mismatch
  • Personification of emotions/senses
  • Attaching items to events
  • Interchanging verbs and nouns


Little techniques such as enhancing a description make items, characters, and scenes stand out and stay in the reader’s mind. More importantly, a quick description lets the scene continue at its usual pace and not get bogged down as the author takes a timeout from the narrative. With particularly well-written books, someone only needs to hear a quick two-word phrase and it triggers a recall of that entire character, perhaps even their plot arc. It is a powerful technique.

That being said, this takes time and practice. Developing a new description is similar to invention – there needs to be a lot of experimentation and plenty of room for failure. However, if you really want something to stand out from the rest of your words, feel free to put a Post-It note above your writing space as a reminder to think about that perfect description. It might not hit you immediately, but when the time comes that you describe a bad marriage as a fourteen-year-long dumpster fire and your readers remember it, you win.

2 comments:

  1. Haiku often uses the juxtaposition of two simple subjects which relates to your sensory mismatch.

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    1. Also very true. Yet another reason I am glad I wrote about haiku before this post (and another reason I am glad someone brought haiku back into my life)

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