Mar 242014

 by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker  

To set the mood of a scene in your story, bring the characters to life, and engage readers in their world and their plight, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action, and situation. And verbs are the heavyweights in your sentences, so pay particular attention to them. Especially avoid the very common but tired, overused verbs like walked, ran, and looked. Instead, find a synonym that shows how that action is taking place.

Say you’ve got a character going from one place to another. How are they moving, exactly, and why? Convey their physical and emotional state at that moment by using a strong, precise, evocative verb. Readers will envision the character and situation much differently, depending on whether you show them strolling or striding or skipping or shuffling or sauntering or slinking or strutting or sashaying or slogging along, just to name a few “s” movement verbs, for example.

For help in zeroing in on the very best word to convey the tone and mood you’re after, it’s a good idea to use both a thesaurus and a dictionary (either online or print). Use the thesaurus to find a wide range of possibilities, then if you’re not 100% sure of the meaning, check with the dictionary to avoid embarrassing slip-ups.

But don’t choose words your readers will need to look up in a dictionary.

Just make sure to choose a word that really nails the meaning you’re looking for, not one that will impress your readers with your literary prowess. Choosing obscure words that just draw attention to themselves is a sure way to distract readers from your story and annoy them. So read your story out loud later to make sure the words you’ve chosen sound natural and are words your characters would actually say or think in the given situation. (And remember that narration is really the viewpoint character’s thoughts and observations!)

Example from my editing:  She heard a stridulous sound coming from the basement.

I’ve never heard the word “stridulous” before, so it conjures up no image or meaning whatsoever to me. That’s the danger for a lot of your readers, too – no image, no impact. And a mild irritation at having to look a word up in the dictionary if they want to know what it means.

If you’d like to introduce some interesting words your readers might not know, it’s best to use them in context, so readers can guess at the meaning.

Choose words that enhance the tone, mood, and voice of your scene.

Find vivid verbs

Verbs are especially important, as there are so many variations in the way someone can move or speak or eat or whatever, depending on their personality, mood, age, gender, size, background, health, fitness level, and of course the circumstances. So it’s worth the effort to find just the right verb that nails the action and makes sense in the context of the scene. A verb that doesn’t quite fit can be jarring and turn a reader off, whereas finding a stronger, more specific verb can really strengthen a scene.

Words for “walked”:

I’ve compiled a handy list of synomyms for “walked” to fit various situations and characters:

– Drunk, drugged, wounded, ill: lurched, staggered, wobbled, shuffled, shambled

– Urgent, purposeful, concerned, stressed: strode, paced, treaded, moved, went, advanced, proceeded, marched, stepped

– Relaxed, wandering: strolled, sauntered, ambled, wandered, roamed, roved, meandered, rambled, traipsed

– Tired: trudged, plodded, slogged, clopped, shuffled, tramped

– Rough terrain, hiking: marched, trooped, tramped, hiked

– Sneaking, stealth: sidled, slinked, minced, tiptoed, tread softly

– Showing off: strutted, paraded, sashayed

– Other walking situations: waddled, galumphed (moved with a clumsy, heavy tread), shambled, wended, tiptoed

So in general, it’s best to avoid plain vanilla verbs like “walked” or “went” if you can find a more specific word to evoke just the kind of movement you’re trying to describe.

But don’t grab that synonym too quickly! Watch out for show-offy or silly words. 

After you’ve found a list of interesting synonyms, choose carefully which one to use for the situation, as well as the overall tone of your book. For example, for “walk,” don’t go to extremes by choosing little-known, pretentious words like “ambulate” and “perambulate” and “peregrinate” (!), or overly colloquial, slang, or regional expressions like “go by shank’s mare” and “hoof it.”

And beware of words that just don’t fit that situation.

Also, some synonyms are too specific for general use, so they can be jarring if used in the wrong situations. I had a few author clients who seemed to like to use “shuffled” for ordinary, healthy people walking around. To me, “shuffled” conjures up images of a patient moving down the hallway of a hospital, pushing their IV, or an old person moving around their kitchen in their slippers. Don’t have your cop or PI or CEO shuffling! Unless they’re sick or exhausted – or half-asleep. 

Similarly, I had a client years ago who was writing about wartime, and where he meant to have soldiers and officers “striding” across a room or grounds or battlefield, he had them “strutting.” To me, you wouldn’t say “he strutted” unless it was someone full of himself or showing off. It’s definitely not an alternate word for “walked with purpose” as is “he strode.”

Or, disguised from another novel I edited:

Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning. 

The verb “sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe “found his way” or even “stumbled” back to his office. 

For similar lists for the verbs “ran” and “looked,” as well as lots of other tips for writing compelling fiction, check out my award-winning writing guide, Fire up Your Fiction (previously titled Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power).

Here are two recent quotes from two different contest judges about Fire up Your Fiction:

“This should be on the booklist for Master’s Programs in Writing for Publication.” ~ Writer’s Digest Judge

“FIRE UP YOUR FICTION is the Strunk and White for writers who want to be not just mere storytellers but master story-compellers.” ~ Judge, IndieReader Discovery Awards

Readers and writers – do you have any examples of great synonyms for ordinary, overused verbs?

More more info, check out Jodie’s Amazon Author Page, her author website or editor website, her other blogs, Crime Fiction Collective and Resources for Writers, or find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. And sign up for her newsletter.

Setting the tone of a book one font at a time.

 font, mood, tone, typeset  Comments Off on Setting the tone of a book one font at a time.
May 202012

by: Joelle Charbonneau

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  Which I suppose as a writer I should take exception to.  I mean, it takes me less than a second to snap a photograph.  Depending on the day, a thousand words can take anywhere from one to twelve hours to write.  Hearing that phrase can totally make a writer feel pissy.  Especially since I think we can all agree with the sentiment.  I mean, in writing, it is up to the author to create in words all the things than an image captures in seconds.  A sense of place.  Tone.  Mood.  Emotion.  Unless you are writing children’s picture books, these things take thousands of words to create.
Writers embrace the challenge of immersing the reader in the world they have created from the first words on the page.  Opening the story with a strong opening line can make or break setting the correct tone and mood.  So can putting the book in the correct font.
You think I’m kidding.  Ha!  I do not joke about fonts.  (Unless we’re talking about windings because those are just fun!)  Well, okay…I am not a font aficionado.  When I write manuscripts, I tend to favor Courier New for my funny books and Times New Roman for my young adults.  When it comes to fonts, I am totally not cutting edge.
However, this week, I got a glimpse of the typeset pages for THE TESTING.  This is not the first set of type-set pages I’ve seen, but it was the first that really drove home the fact that while adult fiction authors don’t have pictures helping them set the tone, we have type-setting that aids us in doing the job.  And while a font is just a…well…font…when combined with a story the font can pull an emotional reaction from the reader.
In my Skating series, the opening sentence of every chapter starts with a script font.  So when you see the words Falling on my ass really hurts  you get the sense the book is going to be playful.  Fun.  Something that is lighthearted. 
Murder For Choir starts every chapter with a staff of music surrounding the chapter heading.  From that opening page you understand that not only is the book going to be lighthearted, but music is going to feature prominently in the story.
Perhaps it is because I am used to having lighthearted books that type-setting choices for THE TESTING struck me so strongly.  The font chosen for THE TESTING is stark.  Cold.  The first sentence of every chapter is in small caps lending power to the opening phrases. 
After seeing the pages, I went to my bookshelf and started pulling out some of my favorite hardcovers to look at how the typesetting set the tone.  In HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS the P of Potter is set to look like a lightning bolt and the title page has a pattern of gray and white diamonds that automatically set the tone of the story.  The all caps title setting of Janet Evanovich’s LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN is made to feel quirky and fun because the publisher chose a funky, almost comic strip style font.  Carl Hiaasen’s NATURE GIRL has a small, gray crab on the title page to help set the tone and almost all the thrillers I paged through have at least part of the first sentence set in all caps.
Is this the first time I noticed that the typesetting of ever book was different.  No.  But it is the first time I really sat and thought about what the typesetting said about the story contained between the covers. 
 Now, I want you to play the typesetting game with me.  Grab the book you are reading and look at the title page treatment and the first page of chapter 1.  Tell me what the book is and what tone the font and the treatment of the title set for you.