Why Every Word Counts

The last few days I’ve played with the opening on the #wip trying to come up with the right balance of characterization and setting while putting the reader into the middle of the story.

On one hand I need to write the story, start to finish. I can’t improve as a writer if I don’t sit down and put words onto the page. On the other I get mired by beginnings if I’m not telling a story the right way.  I know the general direction the tale takes — which you could consider akin to the back cover/dust jacket blurb you read on a book — but room exists for its evolution.

That play between those two opposites represents the angel and devil aspects of my muse, illustrating why its imperative to accept the importance of rewriting.

The Shining by Stephen King comes to mind, because I plan on reading it again before summer ends and the sequel comes out. Many people are familiar with the bare bones: the Torrance family becomes trapped in the Overlook hotel during the winter, and the father goes mad, attempting to kill his wife and psychic son, sacrificing the boy to the things haunting the hotel, whether they are ghosts or residue of the bad things that happened throughout its checkered history. King wanted to write a story about someone who’s dreams become real. Not exactly what you find within the pages, though hints of this premise still exist. 

I believe part of this evolution comes about due to the words King chooses. Is Danny Torrance chased by a fire hose or does that threat only exist in his imagination? Does the ghost within Room 217 attempt to strangle him? Are the bruises a manifestation brought about by his powers? Or his own hands around his own throat? Use the wrong words, those ambiguities disappear, and the story you’re trying to tell flattens. By any other name, so to speak, a hose is just a hose and won’t be confused for a venomous snake.

I’ve had the privilege of reading good examples where stories employ the right word, especially at the outset, which is what I need as I’m starting out on my own work. Tor.com published Homecoming by Susan Palwick — http://www.tor.com/stories/2013/07/homecoming — where the first six words, simple and straightforward, entertain and intrigue. Lucius Shepard offered the opening of his new novella over on Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/lucius.shepard/posts/10201610758696037 — and I can’t spot any waste.

Read other writers. Learn from their examples. My own snippet, which I posted because I found inspiration in these …

Jame envied the orphans.

As the incandescent sun trundled down the curved roof the world, burning away the mist that hid the river and the lands and towering walls that bound it, she listened to them scuttling along the bridge girders overhead. While she could only wait dockside by the family trawler for her father, preparing it for launch at First Light, they were free to seek the best vantage points for spider fishing.

… starts off well enough. I like the first four words. But everything else needs work, because what I see in my head and attempted to put onto the page aren’t as good. They’re not as clear. I know the story is set on a Stanford torus. I know life isn’t normal along this river, hasn’t been normal for quite some time. But does the reader grasp this? Did I paint a picture that conveys this information with both accuracy and economy?

Brevity is the soul of wit, according to Shakespeare, and I believe good writing — especially in shorter forms — demands the concise and exact use of words.


About stephenwnagy

writer, father, husband. not necessarily in that order.
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