Just the right word …

Finding the right word is like finding a bargain – you are fishing through an assortment of possibilities that have some of the right qualities, but not all of them. Suddenly, one option seems to stand out: it is the right size. It is the right colour. And best of all, it is better than the right price!

When it’s the right word, you get a lot for your money. The reader comes away with a sense of coherence of your argument, or perhaps pleasure at an image you’ve conveyed. They may not remember how you did this, but they will remember that you did it.

One example of this in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. In Chapter One, Gaiman is describing the town of Wall:

There is one road from Wall, a winding track rising sharply up from the forest, where it is lined with rocks and small stones. Followed far enough south, out of the forest, the track becomes a real road, paved with asphalt; followed further the road gets larger, is packed at all hours with cars and lorries rushing from city to city. Eventually the road takes you to London, but London is a whole night’s drive from Wall.

This description of a small town captures very well its distance from an urban centre and from industry, the gradual shift from slow, winding, forested land to the fast, straight lines of highways and busyness. But in that last phrase there is an added element of magic that wasn’t there at the beginning. Who describes a journey as taking the time of ‘a night’? With that one word, the darkness of the forest stays with me longer, the perils of night-time travel are foregrounded and Wall seems otherworldly compared with my imagined early morning (give thanks, for the sun has risen!) arrival in the safety of London.

Words form semantic sets, and with each word you choose, you are not choosing the rest that might have gone in that slot. Each word brings with it a range of connotations that add to the development of your story. So imagine that sentence with these alternatives:

  • London is a whole hour’s drive from Wall (no good, not far enough)
  • London is a whole day’s drive from Wall (ok, so it takes a while, but it’s just toil, and there’s sunshine. What magic happens in broad daylight?)
  • London is a whole week’s drive from Wall (trudge, trudge; no magic)

The choice of ‘night’ sets up the whole story. If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it. You’ll feel the magic too.