Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Play With Your Words

Writers play with words. We arrange them and rearrange them. We search for the right words because the right word not only conveys the appropriate meaning but the right rhythm and tone. You know when you find the right word or collection of words because it sounds right.

According to Wikipedia there’s a name for this. Word play is a literary technique in which the words that are used become the main subject of the work. Word play can make the ordinary sound extraordinary. It can give a sentence punch or make it pop. Consider those times when each and every word counts: blurbs, pitches, and taglines. What about naming characters, their towns or the places they frequent?

What about titles? Take yesterday’s post in which Helena talked about creating titles and her suggestion to a commentor (hey, Silver) to reverse the wording for one of her manuscript titles from The Hawk and The Unicorn to The Unicorn and the Hawk, creating a better rhythm by leaving the title ending on a hard ‘k’ sound. A small change but one that made a difference. Let’s not stop at titles, how about using word play to escalate the urgency of a scene. I think Hayley’s comment last Wednesday on creating memorable fight scenes sums it up very succinctly. “I think nothing captures that primal drive of combat better than alliteration. It's like the drum beat pulsing in the background of the fight scene, or rapid series of 's' sounds that speed up the pace…”. Exactly! I’d wish I’d come up with that line!

If the whole idea is to create an experience for the reader then how the words sound is crucial. Alliteration works because the words roll off the tongue. It can be catchy and fun or create that pulsing drumbeat in the background. Combine alliterations and similes and you have the makings of a powerful image, such as “as bold as brass” or “as cool as a cucumber”. It doesn’t have to be complicated. How about using alliteration when creating names? Think Marilyn Munro or Mickey Mouse. Or titles again? How about the Julia Quinn title When He Was Wicked, which has to be one of my favorite titles, or the Dr. Seuss title The Butter Batter Book? Each of those titles creates a very different feeling.

Then there’s the use of onomatopoeia, which is as fun to say as it is to use. Ever played the game KerPlunk? Poured milk in a bowl and waited for the snap, crackle, pop? Ever had a character roar, quack, croak or hiss? Maybe they got zapped, whacked or went splat? It’s about helping the reader feel the words. How about this tiny excerpt from Suzanne Brockmann’s Gone Too Far. “Controlled passion. Not this blinding mix of anger and frustration and howling, gut-wrenching, consuming desire for someone he couldn’t have.” Poor Max! He’s trying his best to act appropriately and to keep his distance from Gina but the way the author wrote it allows us to feel what Max is feeling.

Alliteration and onomatopoeia are only two of the ways you can create a play of words that will echo in the reader’s head. Two ways to tap into the sensual until you’re waiting with bated breath for what comes next. They help land punches. Have us howling with laughter or purring with contentment. It’s worth a try!

Do you think about these devices when you write? Many of us probably use alliteration and onomatopoeia without even thinking about it. Do you play with your words? Twist them around? Do you know when you’ve hit the exact tone or sound you want for a scene, a paragraph, or a sentence?


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Oh gosh, Karyn, I just love playing with words. Alliteration, onomatopoeia (I forget, is it the same term for real words like 'hiss' as well as 'kerplunk'?), those verbs that just make things crackle. It's so fun to polish a small section until it absolutely shines... or maybe I'm just perverse.

If I were a linguist I could probably find a technical term for it, but I think there's just something in the cultural ear that picks up on when things feel right, when they flow in the way we want. Cultures have different styles of rhyming and poetry line length, according to what feels natural in the way we speak, and I think determining things like titles play into that a lot.

Your mention of alliterative names reminds me of another naming technique I love, repeated sounds. The Sex Pistols have great examples--Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious--the echoed vowel sounds in first and last tie them together and add punch, I find. It's also a handy technique for building easy connections for a reader, such as using a similar vowel at the same point in all the names of a family. Your audience will group them together without conscious effort, and it could make it easier to keep such groupings straight in a story with a larger cast.

Karyn Good said...

Hey Hayley. Perhaps the word kerplunk is more of an ideophone using an onomatopoeic type word (which is a word that sounds like the thing it's describing).

I'm not very familiar with The Sex Pistols but I do love the song titles you mentioned. There are all kinds of ways to play with words to come up with something fresh and new that's also pleasing to the ear. Repeated vowels sounds as well as repeated consonant sounds.

All kinds of possibilities!

Helena said...

Hi, Karyn. You've hit on another one of my passions. The sound of words and how they work together. I think that's why I enjoy revising (or self-editing, as it was called in one of the workshops I attended last month). The first draft simply gets the ideas down on the page; part of the self-editing process makes sure the right words have been used, that they occur in the right order, and that the sounds flow when read aloud.

Your emphasis on playing with words certainly ties in with choosing titles, as you mentioned. That's what makes the process so much fun -- and so exasperating. So many tools for the writer to use!

Great topic, Karyn. And all your links work. I must apologise to those who had trouble yesterday with some of my links. I'm still working on them, hope to correct the problem soon.

Karyn Good said...

Hi Helena. I like that term - self-editing. I find it challenging to get that first draft down and completed, to leave the bare bones there until the end. It's smart and necessary but I look forward to going back and playing with the words, seeing how they sound or how they make me feel and hopefully making them fit the images in my head.

Glad the links work!

Gabby said...

Reading this has given me lots of good ideas to incorporate into my own work.

Unfortunately, for now, I'll have to tell myself NOT to "play with my words" until the first draft is complete. Once it's done, then I can have some fun.

Karyn Good said...

Hi, Gabby. Glad I could offer up a few suggestions to play around with for when you're finished that first draft. I know how hard that is to do. We look forward to updates!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Getting the right word or the right phrase is incrediably rewarding. It's the literary equivilent of hitting a home run or scoring a touchdown. Writers are probably the only people who get cranked up about choosing just the right word, but I think a reader's enjoyment increases when we succeed.


Karyn Good said...

Hi, Jana. You're so right, it is the equivalent of a home run or a touchdown as I do sit at my desk and pump my fist when just the right combination of words happen. Who doesn't need that little extra adrenline rush!

Molli said...

Well, ma'am, you've given me something to think about for sure. I do like to have fun with words, but I haven't done anything deliberately to achieve a specific effect so I'll have to think about that when I get down to editing. Thanks.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Karyn, sorry I'm late but was busy with Finally a Bride yesterday. Actually, still am, but am making time...

I love alliterations! You can probably tell by:
- Marry Me, Ma'am?
- Translucent Trust

My teen thinks they're corny but isn't that what romance is, after all?

And I also love playing Word Play. It's my favorite part of revising.

Excellent post, Karyn.