Language of Fiction

kayak My last post was about the first of two constants in fiction—tension. This post will focus on the second: Language.

By that, I don’t simply mean English or Spanish or whatever language you choose to write in. Language is more a term that encompasses vocabulary, imagery, and figurative language. Though it’s of vital importance, it seems to be the thing that is most often over looked.

There seems to be a subtle (or not so subtle) difference here between what we’d term “literary” writing and “commercial” writing. If you’re unsure of what those terms mean, I’ll define them simply and basely: Commercial fiction is written to sell to a mass market. It is generally of less “literary” value because the emphasis is not on language or characters, but on story. Literature, conversely, has a much smaller market. The focus of literary works is more on the art of the story, the way in which it is told, and the overall lasting impact it has on the reader.

If we think of this in context of movies, “literary” works would be the ones winning the Academy Awards. They’re the ones that cause you to re-examine your particular view on a subject, the stories that sit with you for years to come. Contrast this with a summer blockbuster. You might come out talking about how cool the explosions were and how many people got shot, but beyond that, there’s not a whole lot of meat to the story. It’s more an excuse for special effects than to tell a story.

For me, language is the art of writing. Anyone can tell a story. We all have the friend who loves to tell them, but we never enjoy listening to them. It takes a special talent to tell a story in such a way that people want to listen. It takes a special talent to tell a story in such a way that the listener remembers it, re-thinks it, and ultimately comes back to listen to it again.

In “On Writing,” Raymond Carver insists that, “It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine—the source of artistic-delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me.”

Me too, Ray. Me too.

He continues on later to say, “That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.”

Stephen King, in his autobiography/craft book “On Writing,” encourages writers not to make an effort to increase their vocabulary. The idea is that if we are actively trying to find a word to adequately express what we’re trying to say, that we may be trying too hard, and we run the risk of using and uncommon word that doesn’t fit the feel of the rest of the work. I go back to Raymond Carver. Many of his early stories are comprised of very simple language and descriptions, but they are some of the most powerful stories you will read. The language is simple because the characters are simple. Regardless, the emotional impact is not lessened by a smaller, more precise vocabulary.

Lastly, don’t forget the importance of imagery—describing the natural world, and even our thoughts and feelings, in context of our five senses. They are how we experience the world, and thereby are the way we must experience fiction. Far too many beginning writers forget this, or fall into the trap of clichés. They describe things in context of how they’ve heard them described, or read them described. There is only one cure for this: To live and experience.

It’s really difficult to write about a lake unless you’ve been to one, unless you’ve been on the green water on a yellow kayak. Unless you felt the warmth of the murky green water splattering your shorts as you rowed to the trunk of the fallen tree that dives beneath the still water until you can no longer see the moss growing in the grooves of the bark. To write about life, you must live life with your eyes and ears open. You must stop to smell the roses (pardon the cliché). You must savor your meals and try to adequately describe the different ingredients that went into the dish. You must let your fingers linger on the surfaces of the important things in your life, feel the texture, how smooth or how rough, how perfect or flawed.

The language of your fiction is directly proportionate to the power of observation. Do not be content to simply waddle through life. We must all, as Thoreau said, “Live life deliberately.”

Good writing.

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