Since I started writing as a career, I’ve made immeasurable discoveries. One of the most interesting realizations is that perception is everything. Writers choose their words and phrases carefully to ensure the reader will connect, but each reader’s perception of words and their meanings can be different. Most writers keep a thesaurus handy and use it religiously. We want our words to reflect our intended thoughts as accurately as possible.
The English language abounds with synonyms. “But a synonym is a synonym,” you say. “What difference does it make which one you use?” It can make a huge difference. Take, for example, the word, cry. As a noun, its synonyms include call, shout, exclamation, yell, scream, shriek, yelp, bellow, and holler. As a verb, it can mean weep, sob, blubber, snivel, whimper, bawl, howl, wail, and shed tears.
In my novel, The Dark Room, I use the verb, weep, for Stella’s response to being arrested after she thinks her life has finally turned around. She escapes her husband’s constant abuse and now her granddaughter is safe. To me, the word, weep, perfectly represents Stella’s crying. I imagine her sitting alone in a jail cell, feeling defeated and hopeless. I see her motionless, almost paralyzed, staring into space and crying silent tears. She doesn’t scream, yelp or bellow. Weeping fulfills the image that I intend for that scene. It is my perception of how Stella would react in her situation.
I select a different synonym for cry in my novel, I Want to Go Home. The little boys, Pete and Joey, endure several days of homelessness, first living in their car in the dead of winter, then trying to sleep on the hard floor at Union Station. When their panicked sister, Abby, awakens them from a sound sleep in the middle of the night and ushers them outside to face the frigid darkness, they simply can’t take anymore. I could have chosen for them to shriek or yelp or bellow, but my perception of their response is a mouth-open wail. No silent weeping or whimpering depicts their response accurately. They are exhausted, resentful, and angry at the world. Even the word, sob, is not a strong enough synonym for their condition. They must wail.
Words are the raw material authors use to paint a mental picture. Words set the stage for our stories and construct scenes that we hope will come alive in our readers’ minds. Words invoke moods and describe our characters’ personalities. But as carefully as we select our words, the risk exists that our readers’ perception differs from our own.
How often have you watched a movie after reading the book and remarked, “That was nothing like I envisioned it.”? Often, I find my perception doesn’t agree with the screenwriter’s interpretation. Given a choice of reading the book or watching the movie, I prefer the book since the written account is closest to the writer’s intention. I understand how writers choose their words with care, and I respect the process because I know how hard it is to get it right.
Cindy L. Freeman is the author of two award-winning short stories and three published novels: Unrevealed, The Dark Room, and I Want to Go Home. Website: www.cindylfreeman.com; Facebook page: Cindy Loomis Freeman. Her books are available from amazon.com or hightidepublications.com