There’s a theory that goes when we’re writing we should be definitive so no ‘almost’ or ‘sort of’, the problem is that language doesn’t quite work like that, not being definitive also has a place. Whether or not we make a description definitive is a choice which depends on intent.

The problem with the idea of removing phrases that aren’t definitive from our manuscript is that sometimes ‘almost’ can be important. For instance, if a character almost does something and then decides against in. We’ve all have moments where we were thinking of saying or doing something and then changed our minds just before we did it. Here begs the question: in the middle of a character’s conversation do we explain why they didn’t say something or do we say they almost said it and let context tell the rest of the story? The problem with taking out ‘almost’ to add explanation is that it can slow the story down, the more we have between speech the more time that appears to pass between each comment which can sound odd if unintended. There’s also another element, everyone has things they’d almost said/done but pulled back on or things they wish they had. An example might be the trying not to mention happiness in a general sense while at a funeral, such as on reflex saying ‘have a nice day’. If a character stopped themselves saying that in a funeral scene it wouldn’t need explanation.

However, sometimes we need to be definitive. Was it kind of like a thing or was it like the thing? This might seem like an odd question but if we’re using a simile we’re already making a comparison saying ‘it was bright like the sun’ is the exact same as saying ‘it was bright, kind of like the sun’ except the first phrasing is a definitive comparison that uses fewer words. Now, if we’re writing a character who speaks like that then we can get away with it but if we’re writing description in a voice that doesn’t do we need the extra words?  If we put comparative phrasing in a metaphor then we create a simile instead. ‘It was sun bright’ is a metaphor because it is saying definitively that something was bright as the sun, although it’s unlikely it was, rather than making a comparison. ‘It was kind of sun bright’ is more of a simile because it’s saying ‘it was a bit like the sun but not exactly’, the comparison is implied but it’s still drawing one between something that’s bright as the sun and something that isn’t quite. When we use metaphors and similes things can get tricky because we’re inherently speaking in the abstract. It’s unlikely the thing we’re describing is as bright as the sun but people know we’re being poetic rather than literal so we don’t need to emphasise the fact that we’re not being literal.

Another time we might need to consider being definitive is if we’re using direct description: was it kind of awkward? Was it almost a disaster? Once again it depends what we mean and how the character using the description would say it. However, in all likelihood it was awkward rather than kind of awkward, so does directly saying ‘it was awkward’ work better for our story? Similarly, was it or was it not a disaster? Are we writing a character who might open an anecdote with ‘it was almost a disaster, this is how I prevented it’ or by saying ‘it was almost a disaster’ are we lessening the effect or giving unnecessary spoilers in the situation? We could, in this instance, also consider what a character saying it was a disaster and then describing something less than a disaster can say about them and their perspective.

How we use language can change the meaning of what we’re saying. As such, the primary question we have to ask ourselves when it comes to our word choice is: do we mean that? Do we mean to be vague or definitive? Do we mean to make a comparison or not?

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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