Posts Tagged ‘vocabulary’


As a writer I always think that one of the best compliments anyone can give me is to say “I’d  know your writing anywhere. You write just like you talk.”

Now this not strictly true – sometimes I write a first person story taking on the voice of the person I’m writing about. But that is a different matter – I am deliberately selecting a voice other than my own.

In one of my recent stories I take on the voice of a very angry woman who is supposed to be serving the public and who, because of her anger,  does it very badly. In this told-in-the-first-person story “I” have to sound angry, fed up, miserable and trying hard to make other people miserable too. I myself am not like that. Truly I’m not.  I just make that first person voice sound that way.

About 20 years ago I spent several months recording the memories of a BC pioneer rancher and his wife. Having, with my husband’s help, transcribed all the tapes I struggled to put all these fragments of memory in chronological order and come up with a life story that was true to them. They were happy with the result and gave copies to everyone they knew. Almost all of their friends said the same thing, “That sounds just exactly like Jack”. And I knew then that I’d made a success of the project.

Jack’s voice came through. I’d used all his words and turns of phrase. I never thought that I knew a better word, or could explain a situation more clearly. His words and his explanations stood. If his adjective was ‘goddam’ then that was what I used.  I had to use quite a few footnotes because some of the language is seldom used now. (Anyone know what a canthook is?) It doesn’t matter; his words are paramount.

Think of your words the same way. If you would normally say “I ran to grab a cup” don’t imagine that the story will sound more impressive if you write, “I hastened to select a receptacle.” The story shouldn’t sound like a police report – “I proceeded to the domicile” instead of “I went to the house”.

Tell your story as if you were actually telling it to a friend. Which of your friends would really enjoy and appreciate this story? Tell it to her/him in your mind as you’re keying it into the computer or practicing in front of the mirror. If you would not say ‘receptacle’ or ‘domicile’ as you tell your friend, don’t say it to an audience.

I’m a great believer in adapting grammar to the needs of the story as I want to tell it. I know perfectly well that every sentence needs a verb but if I feel the story tells better without a verb in the sentence, so be it. To me, making a a story effective trumps grammar rules every time.

That choice is part of what constitutes my story voice. My attitude to the story and feeling for it, my vocabulary and the ordering of my words all contribute to my voice. Personally I seldom choose these things deliberately, I just try for what feels right in the circumstances.

You have a distinctive story voice too. Make it heard.

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Story vocabulary

Every trade has its own vocabulary. Doctors look at your back X-ray and mutter about C6 and C7, truckers discuss their fifth wheel and Jake brake. Story tellers have their own vocabulary too.

The Plot is what happens in the story as a whole. In Jack and the Beanstalk the plot is that Jack steals treasure from the giant and becomes rich.

The Scene is one small part of the larger plot – Jack buying the beans could be one scene.

The Theme. Don’t confuse this with the plot. The theme is at a much deeper level altogether – it’s what the story is really about (and often different people believe they can see different themes in the same story). In Jack and the Beanstalk the theme is that there is hope that people can rise from dire poverty.

The Setting is the place and general environment where the story takes place. If it is a short story or anecdote, try to keep it to one setting; this gives the story unity.

The Protagonist. This what we used to call the hero of the story – the one who generates the action or has things happen to him, usually the one who gets most of the scenes. The protagonist can be male or female, child or adult or even (usually in children’s stories) an object. Think Black Beauty, Winnie the Pooh and Thomas the Tank Engine. In Jack and the Beanstalk the protagonist is Jack.

The Antagonist. The bad guy. Again it could be male or female, child, animal or inanimate. If the story is about the struggle of climbing a treacherous mountain or crossing a malarial swamp, and there is no human enemy, then the mountain or the swamp takes on the role of antagonist. If you are telling a personal story about fighting, say, an addiction then that is your antagonist. In Jack and the Beanstalk, the giant is the antagonist.

Knowing these terms might not help you create a better story, but you will be able to discuss them like a pro and dazzle your friends with this new vocabulary.

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