by Kelley Lindberg
Voice – it’s that elusive, yet all-important quality that makes your book uniquely yours. It’s how you observe and write about things. It’s the language you use. It’s the language your characters use. It’s the details that you choose to expound upon, the emotions you sketch upon the page, and the pacing as you weave it all together.
Last week, we talked about how paying attention to the rhythm of your sentences can elevate your writing, which is one particular aspect of voice.
This week, let’s explore how vocabulary and language choices can establish a scene’s mood and emotion.
Remember that every scene is doing multiple things for your story. It is creating the setting, building your characters, and defining the conflict. Preferably each scene is doing all three at once, but it must at least be doing two of them.
So in a scene, you’ll want to blend in some setting information that will not just set the stage, but also create a mood. How do you do this? Pay close attention to the verbs and adjectives you choose, and select verbs that convey intent as well as action (“saunter” has a very different feel than “walk”). Highlight one or two details in the setting that carry extra meaning or that will reinforce the emotion – beta fish fighting with their own reflections in a scene that needs to be packed with tension, for example.
Absolutely avoid vague emotion words like “happy” or “scary” or “depressed.” Instead, you can do a lot with a well-chosen verb. For example, “sunlight stabbed across the carpet” feels very different from “sunlight played across the carpet.” See this week’s weekly writing prompt (in the right-hand column of this blog) for an exercise that will help you explore ways your language choices can affect a scene’s mood.
Pick up a couple of favorite novels and find a particularly riveting scene. What verbs does the author use that are doing double duty, establishing both action and mood or atmosphere? What details does the author choose in the scene to describe, and how do those details reinforce the mood?
But remember, you don’t want to bog down your story with long setting descriptions. The right details and language can accomplish much in a few tautly crafted lines.
For example, here is a paragraph from The Dogs of Winter by Bobbie Pyron. In this single paragraph, Pyron manages to sum up weeks of a family’s downward spiral through the eyes of a small boy:
“I burrowed into the nest of blankets in the kitchen pantry. My book of fairy tales rested on a dusty shelf with the ghostly circles of the canned vegetables we no longer had. After days and then weeks, the beautiful golden firebird on the cover of the book was smeared with grease; on another shelf lay a pile of scrap paper, and my favorite pencil. When I couldn’t sleep because of cold or anger, I drew pictures. Drawings of firebirds, a terrible witch named Baba Yaga, houses walking on chicken legs, talking dolls, giants, and wolves with wings.”
The detail of “the ghostly circles of the canned vegetables we no longer had” is a tiny, ordinary detail that takes on breath-taking meaning as a symbol of encroaching poverty and desperation. And the choices of what the small boy draws invoke a growing sense of dread, tempered by the “wolves with wings” at the end, which seems to imply a tiny sliver of hope.
Look closely at your own scenes now. Are your details and language guiding the reader into the emotional state you want them in? Is your description reinforcing your character’s situation, or is your description mostly superficial, generic, or worse – working counter to your needs?
Pull on your revision boots and wade in. Your voice is there, waiting to be unleashed to do what it does best: tell your story your way.
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