Choose Your Synonyms Wisely

The sparse use of a cleverly chosen and somewhat daring synonym can have a strong impact on a reader.

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When using descriptive words in your story, you don’t always need to choose the ones that seem the most suitable or obvious. At appropriate places you can use alternative words, or clever synonyms, to not only allow the reader to understand what is happening in the story, but to subtly heighten the desired emotion of a scene.

In Nod by Adrian Barnes, our protagonist Paul and his girlfriend Tanya are trying to process the overwhelming realisation that the bulk of the human population haven’t slept the previous night. Sleep deprivation experts are on every TV channel, giving the dreadful details of the slow demise of the inflicted if sleep continues to elude them. When Tanya receives a message on her mobile phone, likely from a panicked friend or family member, Paul does not use an obvious descriptive word to explain how he perceives the scene:

I tried to make sense of what she’d just said as her fingers henpecked my T-shirt and her phone shuddered.

Nod by Adrian Barnes

Tanya’s phone vibrated with the incoming message, but the clever use of the word ‘shuddered’ adds an extra dose of peril and anxiety to the already terrible moment. It also lets the reader in on how Paul is coping, seeing as he chose to use this alternate word in his first-person perspective. In contradiction, if it were a story where characters are waiting to receive joyous news, the word ‘vibrate’ could be substituted for ‘buzzed’ or ‘danced.’

Another example of well-chosen descriptive words—which successfully advance the desired feeling of a scene—can be found in The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis. The three main characters of the story have unwillingly found themselves, while fleeing from a pack of hungry giant dogs, in The Deep Realm of the Underland. They are in a vast and dark underground cavern, led by hundreds of strange, likely deformed, underground beings, with their path barely lit by one lone lantern.

By its cheerless rays they could see that they were in a natural cavern; the walls and roof were knobbed, twisted, and gashed into a thousand fantastic shapes.

The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

The use of the slightly awkward word ‘knobbed,’ accompanied by the painful ‘twisted’ and finally ‘gashed,’ all help paint the picture of the perilous place the characters have found themselves in. The words C.S. Lewis chose may not usually be the first that come to mind when describing the roof and walls of a cavern, but by using them the reader is not only given wonderful words for their own imagery, but understand that strong sense of dread and fear in the characters.

The descriptive words you choose could not only help to emanate the desired emotions of a character in a scene or moment, but can also show the way they feel for another character, especially if writing in first person perspective.

Hero, the teenage protagonist in The Other Side of Silence by Margaret Mahy, is telling the reader about an everyday family breakfast scene at her home. She describes her brother Athol, who is sitting at the table, reading a book while listening to, or pretending to listen to, his Walkman. This is how Mahy chose to portray the moment through Hero’s first-person perspective:

Athol sat at the table, his head clasped by his Walkman.

The Other Side of Silence by Margaret Mahy

The use of the word ‘clasped’ is subtle and can seem almost insignificant, but it gives the reader the impression that Athol does this often. Hero’s choice of this word shows that she perhaps deems her brother listening to his Walkman at breakfast as a negative thing, since having your head clasped by anything doesn’t sound in anyway positive. ‘Squeezed’ could have worked fairly well, but ‘clasped’ gives the reader just the right amount of imagery to take in the fact that the Walkman is the dominant party in the coupling.

When describing a moment or scene in your story, allow yourself to loosen up a little with your choice of descriptive words from time to time, because you don’t always need to go for the straightforward, obvious and safe option. Have a good think of the possible synonyms you could use and try any plausible ones out to see how they change the mood of what you are describing. You can’t use alternative, clever synonyms all the time, as it would be too distracting for a reader, but when placed correctly a less-obvious descriptive word can also emit an emotional response and/or tell us more about a character.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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