Ever sit in a busy mall and just watch people? If you don’t, you should. The exercise will benefit your writing—and show how important just the right word can be.
I sit outside a café, sipping my espresso. Across the way a woman runs to a somewhat unkempt, bearded man sitting on a high planter. He puts a cell phone in his worn leather jacket pocket. The woman is thin, wearing unremarkable clothes—dirty clothes, actually. Her jeans have seen better days, her shirt is wrinkled and stained. I’m guessing they’re forty-something.
I instantly put them in a box—they look a bit redneck. If she’d been fashionable, I would have called her slender, not thin. Interesting how an image—along with the words used to describe that image—can shift the image fractionally from wealthy to poor.
Then he lifts his hand. He has a Rolex watch on his wrist and his nails are manicured. He’s also wearing Gucci shoes—maybe he’s doing the planned-scruffy trend. If I’d realized that earlier, I would have used scruffy as opposed to unkempt when I first saw him. The word we choose is everything.
She still looks, well, soiled, though. Actually, more like a battered wife, I decide. But her nails are also manicured—bright red—at odds with her drab clothes. They aren’t standing close enough—so not his wife.
They don’t appear emotionally invested, at least, not as lovers.
She looks around distractedly and runs her fingers through tangled hair—she’s worried someone will see her—attack her?
Then he puts his hands on her waist. Okay, this changes things.
She has troubled, rejected, and defensive written all over her.
Got it! She’s married to an out-of-work man who beats her, and this guy is her wealthy lover. She’s afraid her husband will catch them together and kill them.
Then my story gets blown out of the water.
A twelve-year-old girl runs to them, screeching with joy and holding a puppy in the air. The woman puts a hand to her breast and laughs. The man pats the woman on the hip, and they both put their arms around the child, all three laughing.
The real story? The pup had wandered off while Child and Dad were shopping, and Child had gone off to search for it. Mum had been gardening at home when Dad phoned to tell her the pup was gone. She dropped her gardening and ran straight to the mall, not taking time to clean up first. The parents were concerned about the child’s distress if the pup wasn’t found. I called her clothes dirty, not muddied, which they were.
I had it so wrong—and all because I misinterpreted the signs. The reason I know this for sure is because when they sat near me, I came clean and asked them. Now I had all the right words and the story was clear.
The way I misinterpreted their story is exactly how a reader will misinterpret a story if we don’t give them the exact words that help them unravel the story. There are tiny insinuations behind words. Thin is different from slender—and both are different from skinny. Unkempt is different from scruffy—and both are different from frazzled.
Every single word we write needs to count—and needs to carry as much information as it can. It’s vitally important to choose the words that give the reader a good map of your story.