How to Keep the Thesaurus from Throwing Up on Your Work

If a word is rarely used, there's a good reason for that.

Fotolia.com | © trinetuzun

Fotolia.com | © trinetuzun

Writers have a great many tools at our disposal—plot devices, narrative structure, figurative language, and more—but the most fundamental tools of writing are words. Choosing words carefully is a large part of taking your writing from good to fantastic—but spending too much time agonizing over the Thesaurus can also send your work from good to purple prose faster than you can say “Hemingway was a drunkard.”

This is not going to be one of those articles that lists a couple paragraphs of obscure synonyms for commonly used words, telling you to “spice up your writing” with rarely used vocabulary. For the most part, if a word is rarely used, there’s a good reason for that. It has either fallen out of style, there’s a less cumbersome and more common synonym, or it doesn’t mean quite what you think it means.

We’ve all opened up a fanfic to find “azure orbs” and “raven locks” sprinkled throughout, and most of us have made a face, closed the tab, and gone on to find something else. The reason why those phrases make us roll our eyes are many: They confuse the point the author is trying to make while the reader wades through the dictionary. They make the reader pause for a second because they aren’t used to seeing that word. And they take the reader out of the narrative. Most of all, though, when your prose shades toward purple, it hurts your writing because the reader suddenly sees you, the writer, instead of the narrator or the character and that divorces them from their suspension of disbelief.

The goal of any writing is to communicate an idea. In fanfiction, that idea usually starts with “what if”—what if this character made X decision instead of Y, or what if the setting was B instead of A? What if these two characters were romantically involved, or what if the Big Bad saw the light and decided to join the good guys? Diction, or the choice of words to use when writing, is a powerful tool that can be used to build tone and characterization. To effectively use diction, the first thing any writer must remember is the difference between denotation and connotation.

A word’s denotation is the dictionary definition, the original meaning of a word and its academic use. An example is the word factoid. The denotation of this word is, “An invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.” Woah! That’s a completely different meaning than the one most people assume when they hear the word.

That assumption about what a word means based on its popular use is the connotation. Another way to explain connotation is how the word makes you feel or the image it evokes. Connotation is far more important to keep in mind when writing than denotation. While you may get a pedant here or there that pops into the comments to correct your word usage, as a writer your goal is not to appease pedants but to tell a story. Describing a character as “childish” is going to carry a much different connotation than “youthful”—one implies immaturity, while the other implies joy.

There aren’t any hard and fast rules for when to delve into the thesaurus and when to leave it be—it’s usually the intent behind seeking out synonyms that makes or breaks their usage. If you’re looking for a different way to say “blue” because the word is just too boring for a character, you’re probably going to have a bad time. For the most part, character descriptions don’t have to be particularly thorough. Fanfic readers already have an idea of what the character looks like because they’ve presumably seen the source material, and the physical descriptions of any original characters you add don’t need to be excessively detailed—pick one or two features that stand out and focus on them, rather than starting with the tallest strand on the top of their head and ending with their shoes.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a different word for “yell” because you don’t think it adequately conveys how upset the character is and want to use “shriek” instead, that’s better. Adjectives and verbs in particular should come under heavy scrutiny when you’re rewriting. Think about how the word makes you feel or how it contributes to the overall tone of the work. Think of all the different ways you could describe shadows, for instance:

“The low shapes of the guns cast yawning, heavy shadows across the boards.”

or

“The low shapes of the guns cast soft, heavy shadows across the boards.”

or

“The low shapes of the guns cast jagged, heavy shadows across the boards.”

All three of these words give the sentence a different feel, especially when combined with “heavy” as a secondary descriptor. “Yawning, heavy shadows” lend a sense of exhaustion. “Soft, heavy shadows” feel almost like your eyelids are sliding shut, giving the sentence a sleepy air. “Jagged, heavy shadows” are foreboding and probably a little creepy. The first sentence is the most neutral out of all three. The second is muted and nearly comforting, and the third feels like a warning. Changing one word in a sentence can modify how an entire paragraph feels to the reader, so you should keep those connotations in mind for your descriptive language.

Another area of particular importance when it comes to busting out your trusty thesaurus—and possibly an etymology dictionary too—is writing for period pieces. A period piece is a work that is set in a time distinct from our own, whether that be the Renaissance, the Stone Age, or the Age of Sail. Even fantasy works that aren’t set in our world usually have a recognizable time period (more often than not the Middle Ages or other time periods between the 10th and 16th centuries).

Using modern diction in a period piece—like Arya Stark calling something “hella rad” or Captain Jack Sparrow “popping bottles”—is going to throw the reader out of your work and leave their head spinning. Some anachronistic language is probably forgivable—as I said before, you’re not writing for the pedants—but it’s worth looking up an idiom or turn of phrase to see when it originated. You’d be surprised at how old certain phrases are that we use in our everyday lives, and how many of them can be attributed to Shakespeare.

Dialogue is the one place where the diction can be as florid as you wish as long as it fits the character. Loki for example talks like he’s reciting epic poetry, probably because the recitation of epic poetry is a strong part of Norse (and therefore Asgardian) tradition. Choosing his words to make him sound like Shakespeare in the Park is going to feel much more authentic than giving the same dialog to Captain America.

Avoiding “cerulean orbs” is only the beginning. Stripping out all of your unconventional word choice is going to leave your story sounding flat and generic, but leaving all of them in will make the reader’s eyes cross within three sentences. As always, all things in moderation. A splash of crimson on the floor is going to stand out far more if you only spend three words describing the bare wooden room. Always keep the tone of your work in your thoughts, because when you’re telling a story, the picture the reader forms in their mind’s eye is going to owe its shape to your diction.

About Farasha Silver (4 Articles)
Farasha Silver grew up in a small town in Texas in the early days of the internet and has since become a multi-fandom writer. Hard at work on her original novels, she still lives in Texas (although no longer in a small town) with her husband, stepson, and a zoo of animals.

1 Comment on How to Keep the Thesaurus from Throwing Up on Your Work

  1. Rachel Smith Cobleigh // December 14, 2015 at 11:36 am // Reply

    Beautifully written! Yes, changing your diction and style to match the world(s) of your chosen fanfic character(s) is absolutely essential. You want to design a reading experience that is wholly immersive and compelling! One of the most common and quickest ways to jar readers out of your story is to have the characters from a period piece talking like modern American teenagers, for example. Another way is to spend way too much time attempting to write “poetic” prose, like you’re trying to write the Next Great American Novel or something. There’s a place for everything, certainly, but too much of any good thing can become a bad thing. Learning how to moderate yourself, when to use which tools, how to vary pacing and mood: that’s all a lifelong journey for a writer. We all write wince-worthy stuff, but hopefully with practice, we’ll learn how to make our readers wince less often. 🙂

    I’ve been writing an epic Downton Abbey fic, Trust and Providence (https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10078078/1/), which is a period piece set (so far) between 1914-1921 in England, with characters from a few different social classes. In addition to the dictionary and the thesaurus, I’m also raiding etymology websites and British slang resources, and making use of Britpickers, to learn how to reproduce the lilts of those dialects of English. When are things made into contractions? (“I’ll not” instead of “I won’t”, for example, and “He weren’t” instead of “He was”.) What kinds of words sound “old-fashioned” to modern American ears, but were/are the normal course of things in this dialect? (Such as “I shall” instead of “I will”, and “he was stood” instead of “he stood”.) How does the punctuation in works from that era and country differ from the punctuation I’m accustomed to using now? (Such as no period after ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, and ‘Dr’, but a period after ‘Capt.’ And words that were never combined, such as “on to” instead of “onto”.) And don’t forget to use the appropriate spelling! (Such as “colour” instead of “color”.) When you study this kind of stuff, you learn all sorts of shocking things, like the fact that no one used the word “pregnant” to mean “carrying a foetus in the womb”—outside of medical journals—until the 1960s. (This is a blatant anachronism in the Downton Abbey TV show, actually. 🙂

    Of course, maybe there’s being too obsessive about getting every detail right to produce a certain kind of tone and style, but when it’s done well, these subtle details can make for an immersive and wonderful reading experience.

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