Tuesday, June 14, 2016

When Words Aren't Enough

"The surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete."  (The Elements of Style  by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White)
As writers, we all want our words to be understood. The same holds true for a person speaking to another. In a face-to-face conversation, the task of achieving clarity is made a little easier by means of facial expression and gestures we understand and which convey the speaker's meaning.
"There was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture. The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare.
 Those aides are missing in a phone conversation, in texting and emailing and, often, in writing and can contribute to misunderstanding.
Despite our reliance on them, words can't always express the full measure of what we mean to say. That's because there are so many nuances attached to a particular word and what we mean it to convey. This becomes even more difficult when you consider translating from one language to another.
One way to assure clarity is to bring in those expressions and gestures I mentioned above.
Here's a brief example from the master, Elmore Leonard (Road Dogs):
He watched the bank robber shrug, watched him pick up his glass and take a drink.
"You're having a good time poking around," Foley said, "trying to find out what I'm up to, aren't you?"
"I enjoy talking to you," Tico said, "one bank robber to another, uh?" and waited for Jack Foley to see he was being funny.
He did, but smiled only a moment.
And a longer one from Stephen King (The Hotel Story from On Writing):
Olin looked pained. For a moment he glanced around the small, smart lobby, as if for help. At the concierge's stand, a man was discussing theater tickets with his wife while the concierge himself watched with a small, patient smile. At the front desk, a man with the rumpled look one only got after long hours in Business Class was discussing his reservation with a woman in a smart black suit that could itself have doubled for evening wear. It was business as usual at the Hotel Dolphin. There was help for everyone except poor Olin, who had fallen into the writer's clutches.
"Olin?" Mike repeated.
No question of what's going on in either case.
And, finally, one from my own Something So Divine:
"Why were you watching out for her? Did you think someone wanted to hurt her?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders and didn't answer. He turned his gaze away.
Behind them a chair squeaked, and Roth heard the scratching of the clerk's and the reporter's pens on their notebooks.
"Ned. Ned, look at me. Somebody did hurt Susie. Was it you, Ned?"
The boy brushed a shock of hair away from his eyes and shook his head. He peered steadily at Roth. He blinked, and tears ran down his cheeks. "She was my friend. I loved Susie."
"Do you know what happened to her up in that field?"
Ned slowly shook his head from side to side.


  1. I'm thinking of creative ways to add meaning to phone conversations---something like hearing the tapping of keys, indicating the other person's non-engagement with the conversation; pauses; sighs. Emails and texts can have a lot of misspellings, indicating inattentiveness or hurry.

  2. You could do that with a phone call in a story.You're right about the emails and texts.Thanks for commenting.

  3. Before I write a chapter, I write all 5 senses down and then jot words I can possibly incorporate into the chapter. It helps to remind me to color in the lines.

    1. Hear that, fellow writers. All 5 senses. Good advice, Sunny.

  4. Knowing where, when and how much of the senses to employ when crafting a scene is what makes a story shine.