Writer’s Toolbox: The Perfect Word
1. Charles James Stanford IV brushed a freshly manicured hand across the sleek mahogany desk and depressed the blinking intercom button.
2. Shorty Stanford raked rough palms over the splintered desktop, shoved aside a jumble of coffee-stained newspapers, and grabbed his phone.
The two opening sentences above are each just 20 words about a man sitting at a desk. The two men even share the same name, but how much do these men––and these sentences really have in common? Let’s dissect them one word/phrase at a time to discover how the perfect word paints a perfectly unique picture.
What’s in a name?Our names are chosen for us by our parents, but we control how we use the name we were given.
Charles James Stanford IV uses every syllable, including the Roman numerals that mark him as one in a long line of Stanfords. He might be pretentious, or simply proud of the ancestors whose name he shares.
On the other hand, a man who’s earned the nickname Shorty––and doesn’t mind thinking of himself by that name––is not putting on airs. Shorty is who he is, and he’s not too hung up on what people call him––or what they think about him, for that matter.
Motion PictureThe action word in each of the above sentences could have accurately been moved. But brushed, and raked are so much more powerful and visual! When you choose the verb––especially in the opening paragraph of a scene––make it strong enough to carry the sentence and show exactly what you intend.
Object LessonThere is a big difference between Mr. Stanford IV’s well-manicured hand and Shorty’s rough palms. Not only does the condition of Charles’s hands imply that he does little manual labor, and has time and money to indulge in manicures, but also that he is the sort of man who’s not embarrassed to walk into a salon and ask for a manicure.
Shorty’s rough palms, on the other hand, are work-toughened, and we get the impression that the condition of his skin isn’t high on his priority list.
These simple two-word descriptions are strong clues to each man’s personality and sensibilities––great foundations upon which to build a strong character.
Interior (or exterior) DecoratingThe way you describe the furnishings of a room, or the elements of a landscape not only set the mood and tone of the scene, but should also reveal something about the characters who inhabit that scene.
Charles’s mahogany desk is no-doubt expensive. We have clues that his desktop is neat and well-organized. Conversely, Shorty’s desk is splintered, likely second-hand. Further, we can deduce something about each man’s financial status simply by the state of his desk.
Emotion PotionDon’t let any action by your character be wasted or meaningless. When your character moves, show us his emotion by the way he moves. Charles is depressing buttons, cool, calm and collected––a man in control of his world.
Shorty, on the other hand, is shoving and grabbing. We can almost see the sweat bead on his forehead.
Not only do these actions reveal our characters’ personalities and emotional states, but they also hint at plot. Things are almost too calm in Charles’s tidy world, and we somehow know it’s about to be disturbed. Something is already wrong in Shorty’s world and we’re about to find out what it is.
The Big Picture (it’s in the details)The great thing about details––even the tiniest details––is that they provide a window to the big picture.
When we see Charles’s mahogany desk and intercom system, our mind automatically fills in what’s not mentioned: a large corner office with a view, an efficient secretary on the other side of his door, answering his phone for him. The few well-chosen words about Charles let us see even beyond his plateglass windows to the ritzy downtown office building and majestic city skyline.
Shorty’s scene is equally telling. Seeing his desk littered with coffee-stained newspapers makes us envision piles of unopened mail and empty takeout containers in a cramped office. We somehow know there’s no waiting room or secretary beyond his door. If Shorty is lucky enough to have a window at all, it’s covered with bird droppings and smog, and his view is the crumbling brick warehouse across the alley in the bad part of town.
The Underlining Issue
Even the seemingly inconsequential words (underlined in the two sentences) are important! There is a subtle difference between across and over. Across is a more refined and erudite adverb, befitting Mr. Stanford IV. You can almost hear the trill of his R. And while over is also an adverb, it’s a more direct, ordinary word––a lot like Shorty.
The difference between the and his is even more subtle. Charles is one removed from his environment. He’s “above” the intercom, so would never refer to it as “his.” But down-to-earth Shorty thinks of the phone on the desk as “his” because he answers it, dusts it, pays for it out of his own pocket.
The wonderful thing about a carefully crafted opening sentence is that when you’ve set the stage with such precision, every paragraph that follows will be built upon this strong visual and emotional foundation.
Choosing precisely perfect words in every sentence ultimately results in a perfect paragraph, a perfect page, a perfect chapter, maybe even a perfect book––one word at a time.