Choosing the Right Words

‘Sticks and stones my break my bones, but words will never hurt me’.

It’s an old adage, one which is rattled out again and again to try and say how words are only mere words and therefore are 100% less efficient at ruining someone’s good day than throwing a few stones at them.

However, here is where I disagree. Now whilst sticks and stones are powerful in the way that they can create physical harm, words are just as powerful as any physical object. In some regards, I would argue that they are more powerful, because words are how we interact with the world around us, how we communicate with our fellow humans. Words have a fluid meaning, and malicious words have the power to be warped into an irrational truth for a person, a truth that would take years for someone to unlearn.

Now, how does this apply to writing?

I also have an ongoing argument with anyone who will listen that stories are important, and that they hold a considerable amount of power within them. Whenever anyone argues that my critique of a film shouldn’t get so heated because ‘It’s only made up’, I feel they are totally misunderstanding the point of a story.

A story is a lesson, albeit dressed up and padded out to make that lesson span over pages, with subplots, themes, and arcs all leading towards the conclusion. How is it that we know about the Trojan horse, or the tales of ancient cities which are now lost to time?

Words and stories, that have since turned themselves into myths and legends.

Let’s talk about one of my favourite openings in Patrick Routhfuss’ ‘Name of the Wind’. The writing style in this book is something else. I am a hard person to convince to buy a book from an author I haven’t read before, but the prologue to ‘Name of the Wind’ grabbed me by the proverbial lapels and shook me hard.

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

In the prologue, Routhfuss describes a silence of three parts. This prologue is no more than one side of an A5 paperback page, so probably a few hundred words, and yet it describes in exquisite detail the picture of a silence. I found myself drawn into this world and conjuring up an image of a silent inn with the residents all sitting about inside it, with each person’s lack of inaction building up the silence in the inn.

The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by the things that were lacking

How exquisite is that quote? Sublime, in my opinion, because it truly describes the essence of a silence, which is that it lacks sound. In most of my writing, I have always described silences as something that is ‘sharp’ or ‘cut like a knife’. Yet in a line, Routhfuss manages to capture the essence of what makes a silence, and beautifully set the atmosphere for the rest of the prologue.

In doing this, they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one. It made an alloy of sorts, a counterpoint

The way Routhfuss weaves the first two descriptions of silence together with the word alloy is brilliant. Alloy is a word that suggests two things being bound together to make one overall whole, and in doing so Routhfuss manages to deepen the reader’s sense of the silence to something more eerie. Whereas the first silence sets the atmosphere, the second sets the tone of the book, a brooding quality that stays with the characters throughout the story.

The third silence is described as follows:

It was deep and wide as an autumn’s ending. It was as heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.

Now I love metaphors as best as the next writer, but these metaphors are something else entirely. In trying to describe something as innocuous as a silence, Routhfuss manages to build in this third aspect of the main character that runs throughout the book. It gives the reader a sense of tired foreboding, as if the main character’s story is ending just as autumn’s ending that leads into winter. It also suggest a sense of age to the character, as any ‘river smooth stone’ is something that has been etched away at by a river until what remains is the strongest part of the stone. This sense of age is coupled with the fact that it is the sound of “a man who is waiting to die”, which leads us the reader to question just what this main character has done to come to this place of foreboding, and ask just why he is waiting to die.

However the true genius of Routhfuss’ opening is that when I turned the page to read chapter one, the story began in the Waystone Inn. Routhfuss had painted the broad brushstrokes of the setting in the prologue, and then pulled the reader deeper into the story by letting them draw up a seat in the Waystone Inn to listen to the story alongside its occupants. From that point onwards, I was sold on the story and couldn’t put the book down until I turned the last page.

After finishing the Name of the Wind, I was inspired to try out some practice writing in the style of Routhfuss to try and emulate his ability to pick the right words for a sentence that would be far more powerful than ten words all hung together with commas. It was an interesting exercise, and one which made me more aware of my own style of writing and gave me a few points I want to try and continue practicing in the future. I knew that my love of metaphors sometimes would produce long winding sentences, especially when using description, but in attempting to curtail my metaphors to something that was precise I realised just how powerful metaphors could truly be when deployed properly.

I think the most important thing that Name of the Wind taught me, in terms of writing, was to continue to push myself and try new things. Writing is an art, like any, and not only do I love to marvel over another’s ability to conjure up pictures with precisely chosen words, but I enjoy continuing to learn more about just how to write powerful stories that people will remember. It is hard to try new styles, or attempt certain stories with fewer words than I would normally allow myself, the satisfaction of success when the words just work is something that will never become old.

Alex.J.Cobalt is a fantasy writer from the UK. When she’s not working away at her fantasy novel series, she posts free flash fictions on her website, along with regular blogs about writing.

Photo Credit: Dan Meyers on Unsplash

First Posted in 2016

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