Searching for Diction

It’s that spooky time of year, the week leading up to Halloween when my neighbors drape cobwebs across their doorways and front yards sprout headstones, pumpkins, and life-size zombies. Even this morning, the classical music station on my car radio treated me to Saint Saens’s Danse Macabre, an anecdote about how some people at the turn of the twentieth century believed composer/musician Paganini had struck a deal with the devil in order to play so well, and very eerie scrapings on a violin intended to depict the dancing of La Strega.

So, given the slanting golden days of late October with the wind whipping falling leaves and shoppers rushing to load up on candy in preparation for All Hallows’ Eve, I’m joining in the spirit of things by writing a post devoted to diction and the imagery it can create.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines diction as “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.

And a much simpler way of defining it is just “word choice.”

Can that make much difference in writing? You bet! Words are our sculptor’s tool, our chisel, our brush, our paint. We manipulate reader imaginations through the various words we use as descriptors. We can make a setting dull and uninteresting or vivid and appealing. We can evoke reader sympathy for characters or influence readers to dislike them intensely. By utilizing vocabulary with precise intent, we can add another layer of entertainment value to the stories we create.

Let’s look at some examples:

The large, red dog trotted along the sidewalk. He seemed to know where he was going. He ignored all the pedestrians he passed. At Sixth and Elm, he crossed the street, evading the oncoming cars. A cop noticed him, but by then he’d vanished into an alleyway.

Are you enthralled?


I’m not surprised. The diction of this example is flat, dull, ordinary, and without imagery. It lacks the specialized (or coded) language that would fit it into a particular genre, and it is not focused into any sort of dominant, lasting impression.

Let’s shift and tweak this a bit so it fits instead into the romance category:

The magnificent Irish Red Setter trotted along the sidewalk as though leading a parade of pedestrians. With his coat gleaming like a copper penny in the sunshine, he disdained all the passersby and ignored every attempt to catch his attention or touch him. So regally did he move that the crowd parted ahead of him, and even at the normally busy intersection of Sixth and Elm the cars halted to let him pass. By the time a cop saw him, the setter was disappearing into an alleyway with a jaunty wave of his plumed tail.

More adjectives? Yes. More adverbs? Yes. Longer? Definitely. The dog is moving down the sidewalk, but now we have a specific breed, plus visual cues from similes, and a focus on the animal’s beauty and regal bearing.

What about putting our pooch into a mystery?

No doubt about it, the mutt was a stray. I watched him scurry down Broad Avenue, searching from doorway to doorway for the little bowls of kibble that softies among the shopkeepers left there. Good way to attract rats and roaches, if you ask me. But the dog knew the drill and was ready to mooch for what he could find. A couple of guys in suits called to him. One even tried to grab the dog’s collar. It was just a piece of dirty rope tied around his neck, the snapped end dangling where he’d made his break for freedom. But he dodged the attempt to catch him with an outraged yelp and shot across the intersection of Sixth and Elm. Cars honked and squealed brakes to avoid hitting the mangy fleabag.  On the corner a cop put in a call, probably to the dog catcher. Yeah, like the pound could arrive in time to catch anything. Muttsie meanwhile was already ducking out of sight in the nearest dark alley.

Yes, I used “shot” deliberately as a verb and “snapped” as an adjective. I gave the street a name because mysteries focus on specific details. I used a first-person narrator and viewpoint in the detective tradition. Other terms selected as appropriate for this genre include “stray,” “mooch,” “rats,” “roaches,” “drill,” “break for freedom,” “dirty rope,” etc.

And urban fantasy?

In the thickening twilight, nightfall spread across the broken pavement. Dead weeds had pushed up through the cracks in the cement and died there, their desiccated corpses casting crooked little shadows in the streetlights’ amber glow. A lean hound, as black as the cloak of death, moved between shadow and light, seen and unseen, its pads silent upon a sidewalk littered with glints of broken glass and the occasional crumpled soda can or food wrapper. Only a few people remained out. They hurried, clutching their coat collars, and dodged to let the hound pass unhindered. No one reached out to the animal. No one called to it. For it wore the heavy black chain of its master, and to meet its glowing red eyes was to look through the gates of Hell.

Here, I’ve chosen harsh descriptors, making the weeds into dried-up corpses, crumbling the sidewalk, and littering it with trash and broken glass. I’ve also set my stage with darkness and shadows, long the playground of danger. And, yes, this time I’ve given people the collars and the dog a chain–all on purpose.

As you can see in each of these examples, I’ve altered the dominant impression to create imagery and to establish a certain mood in my readers’ minds. I’ve chosen to emphasize very different details, or created them to fit the atmosphere I want. Essentially the same action is occurring–although in the fantasy I dispensed with traffic and alleys. But each sample points to a very different plot and story world.

Tone, mood, atmosphere, weather, and setting. Beyond the writer tools of plot and characters, adopt the strategy of making diction also work for you. Edgar Allen Poe employed it in the nineteenth century, and yet this device is by no means out-dated. You can use it to frighten or enchant readers, charm them, alarm them, or even make them laugh out loud.


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Toad Is Found!

(Before you ask, no, this isn’t another story about “Phelps” the bullfrog.)

A work colleague of mine has a sign on her office window to the effect of “You’re a writer. It’s okay to be strange.”

I smile every day when I walk past her office, and I always think, Yeah! Isn’t it great to do what I do? Isn’t it wonderful to live a whimsical life, free to explore the forests of my imagination and the roads that lead down the lane to all that’s peculiar?

So here goes … an example of how whimsical and (possibly) strange a writer can be.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been hunting a large rubber toad that has been mislaid in my house. I bought it for a Halloween decoration for my campus office, and frankly Toad is one homely critter. But I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for frogs and toads, and I love him–warts and all.


Still, Toad has been missing. I stowed him hastily out of sight while entertaining weekend house guests at the end of September, and once my company had departed, I couldn’t remember where I’d put him. After all, there aren’t that many hiding places in my house. But Toad has finally been found, hanging out in my office. He’s been half-concealed behind a recently installed card catalogue (yeah, the old kind that used to hold inventory cards in public libraries).

My office. The place in my home where I spend the most time. It’s a small room crammed to the gills with desks, dictionary stands, filing cabinets, computer equipment, books piled in heaps and leaning stacks, and papers that need filing but somehow never get put away. So how could I come and go in this den of imagination and not see Toad perched on my desk atop a precarious stack of binders?

Who knows? Perhaps he’s been winking in and out of another dimension, playing in the Twilight Zone and having a wicked chortle at my expense.

All I can say is that tonight I spun around in my desk chair, and there he was.


Life is sweet once more. Tomorrow I will take Toad to work with me and display him in a place of honor atop a bookcase where his cold painted eyes can glare at my students who come for tutorials. Perhaps next year I will buy him a little hat. Or not. He does not seem to be in the mood for haberdashery. And if he does not care for college life, I shall bring him home again and let him reside permanently in my office, where he can wander back and forth between this dimension and another, as his whimsy takes him.

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Bubble, Boil & Trouble

Just the other day, I told my class that more amateur fiction fails from insufficient conflict than for any other reason.

Conflict, problems, adversity, bad luck, pressure, stress, worry, anguish–these are all part of a writer’s toolkit and should be at the center of stories.

However, sometimes new writers stumble over these variants of character trouble or dodge them altogether.

Instead, let’s look ’em right in the eye:


Conflict is the linchpin of scenes. I always define it as two characters in direct, active opposition to each other. They meet in confrontation. They argue, fight, interrogate, bicker, evade, etc. Each one comes into the confrontation with a strategy and maneuvers through various tactics and persuasions in an effort to win the encounter.

So as long as you’re writing scenes, fill them with conflict.

If your characters won’t confront each other, you have a problem, and the scenes will crumble.

Problems that can’t be ignored or evaded give your characters something to do. Problems in the story’s opening situation, in the story’s subplots, in the characters’ backgrounds are all useful devices for filling mushy places in your plotline where the story action might otherwise flag.

Adversity (aka random bad luck) carries a warning label because it’s so often misused whenever inexperienced writers try to substitute it for conflict.

Let me state this clearly:  conflict and adversity are not the same thing. Adversity is conflict’s weaker cousin and it can’t do the job that conflict is responsible for.

Even so, occasional adversity doesn’t hurt. Like problems, adversity in small doses injected strategically brings another level of trouble to a story. If you’re writing plenty of conflict and your scenes are strong, adding an occasional dollop of bad luck will help raise the story stakes and keep your plot less predictable.

However, adversity alone just doesn’t carry a story well. Random bad luck is the volcano spewing molten lava on the spot where the hero just happens to be standing. Had the sidekick been there instead, the lava would have melted him. The lava doesn’t care. It has no intelligence, let alone a reason for doing what it’s doing.

Yet if lava spewing danger to a resort Hawaiian community is a catalyst that kickstarts a story and gets the protagonist moving in an effort to warn the community residents or evacuate them, then the volcanic eruption works very well as a backdrop of added danger. But on its own, it is not an actual antagonist.

Pressure ups the stakes. Pressure comes from deadlines, bad luck, and threats. Just when your protagonist has more than enough to cope with, add more pressure. Maybe Granny decides to have a coronary just as the protagonist is trying to load everyone on her neighborhood block into a van for evacuation ahead of the lava flow. The ambulance is cut off from rendering assistance. Minor characters are panicking. And now the protagonist has to find a way to save Granny.

Stress is a by-product of trouble and pressure. And while I want to experience as little stress in myself as possible, I certainly want my protagonist to suffer through a lot of it. Because stress indicates my protagonist is being tested, which is what fiction is really about.

Worry in a hero when things are going from bad to worse creates a corresponding concern in readers. And that helps keep pages turning.

Anguish stems from scene conflict that’s more challenging than the protagonist expected, ending in setback or disaster. Think about times in your life when you’ve wanted something so very, very much and it did not happen. Look at the faces of Olympic athletes who’ve trained for years for the split-second ending of a race when they reached out with all they had and fell short.

That’s your protagonist, reaching through conflict and opposition so bad he isn’t sure he can survive it, and feeling intense anguish as the story goal looks to be dropping away, lost forever.


Conflict, problems, and trouble have to start strong and grow harsher and more formidable as the story progresses. This kind of story pressure will then force your protagonist into taking risks and growing. It will push your protagonist’s emotions into a churning turmoil of conflicting feelings.

If your viewpoint character isn’t “on the boil” inside, then chances are you haven’t pitted him or her against enough opposition.

Raise the stakes and stop protecting your protagonist.


What’s bubbling beneath the surface? What do you know that your readers don’t? Is your protagonist torn within, at conflict with himself as he struggles to find a way out of his current difficulties?

External plot conflict should exacerbate whatever flaws your hero possesses. Not just little things like failing to pick up her clothes, but areas where your protagonist lacks something necessary to win, to survive the story situation.

The external conflict should force your protagonist to grow. And a character grows whenever he’s pushed from the cocoon of physical, emotional, or psychological safety where he’s taken refuge.

Trouble with consequences that can’t be ignored is the first step toward shoving your protagonist beyond the safety zone. Being pitted against an antagonist that shows no mercy will compel your protagonist to strive to do things never tried before despite that inner flaw or fear. The story’s plot is all about making your protagonist face her fear or overcome her inner weakness despite all the internal doubt and uncertainty holding her back.

Without trouble, boil, and bubble–protagonists are flat and lifeless on the page. They never quite come to life. They fail to be compelling.

Reach past your personal comfort zone and stop protecting your hero. Amp up the challenge, and kick emotions to life.

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Grab ’em quick!

Ever try to get your story started in a dynamic and exciting way, but you just can’t seem to pull it off?

Ever feel like you’re taking too long to set up and establish your story situation?

Ever feel like your story needs more oomph somehow?

Open with a hook.

Make it short and catchy. (pun intended)

Design it deliberately to grab the reader’s interest. Don’t worry if it feels cheesy or over the top. Just set the hook. Be blatant and obvious about it.

Consider the following examples pulled at random from my bookshelf:

Sidney Shelton’s IF TOMORROW COMES:  She undressed slowly and dreamily, and when she was finished she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show. [thriller]

Brandon Sanderson’s THE ALLOY OF LAW:  Wax crept along the ragged fence in a crouch, his boots scraping the dry ground. He held his Sterrion 36 up by his head, the long, silvery barrel dusted with red clay. [science fiction]

James Patterson’s ALONG CAME A SPIDER:  1932 … The Charles Lindbergh farmhouse glowed with bright, orangish lights. It looked like a fiery castle, especially in that gloomy, fir-wooded region of Jersey. Shreds of misty fog touched the boy as he moved closer and closer to his first moment of real glory, his first kill. [thriller]

Jack Campbell’s THE LOST FLEET:  DAUNTLESS:  The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment. Faint echoes of a blast reached into his stateroom as the ship shuddered. Voices outside the hatch were raised in fright and feet rushed past. [science fiction]

Erin Hilderbrand’s SILVER GIRL:  They had agreed not to speak about anything meaningful until Meredith was safely inside the house on Nantucket. [women’s fiction]

Jude Watson’s LOOT:  No thief likes a full moon. Like mushrooms and owls, they do their best work in the dark. [children’s fiction]

And finally, Harlan Coben’s NO SECOND CHANCE:  When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. [thriller]

Although thrillers pretty much have to open with a hook, I’ve included other genres in this small sampling to show you how hooks apply to any type of fiction.

In each of these examples, there is an element of danger and/or action leading to danger.

You may be thinking that you aren’t writing an action-adventure story. You may intend something slower-paced. You want to make your setting an important element, and you feel the need to introduce it first.

So how about this from Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES?

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month:  school begins. Consider August, a good month:  school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine:  there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.

One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.

See what I mean?

Bradbury has taken longer than any of my other examples to set his hook, but once he’s caught you, you’ll keep turning the pages.

Keep in mind that stories need to start with a moment of change for the protagonist that has big consequences. And whether it’s positive or negative, change is perceived as threatening because change alters the status quo. It makes things different, and we aren’t quite sure we want them to be.

Use atmosphere or weather–spooky twilights, crashing thunderstorms–and make it extreme. Let your word choice set the mood you’re going for. (Spiky leaves, cracked sidewalks, houses hunched in silhouette against the setting sun) And try to either plunge the protagonist immediately into danger–say, within the first 25 words if possible–or put the character in the middle of dangerous action.

Don’t be subtle. Don’t cram too much information into the opening sentence. Don’t explain anything. Keep story action simple, clear, and direct. And set the hook. Grab your readers fast, and don’t let them go.


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The Return of “Phelps”

Just in case any of you cared about my silly frog story, here’s a postscript:

“Phelps” remains alive and well in my backyard. He, like most of the toads, has figured out the safest area–unreachable by the dogs–and the best hunting ground–where the side door light shines all night to attract insects.

He continues to freak out when he encounters me, but I’m okay with that. And he no longer paddles in the doggie water bowl–unless it’s after midnight.

I’m also told that there’s no way an eagle would ever drop him. (Like eagles can’t make mistakes?) I’m told that he would indeed leave a plentiful, safe water source and hop a quarter-mile uphill just to incarcerate himself in my backyard where there’s scant safety, limited water, and prowling Scottish terriers. Uh, sure. I think my theory of how he came here is better.

In any case, what a survivor!

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From my bookshelf: Phyllis Whitney

Recently I stumbled across a treasure trove of immaculate hardcover copies of several Phyllis Whitney titles. They are thin volumes, probably Doubleday book club editions, and missing their dust jackets, yet they have been well cared for and look–and smell–brand new. I circled them, debating within myself–should I pounce or were they too out of date for today?

I first learned of this author when I was a professional writing student at the University of Oklahoma. My teacher, Jack Bickham, was a huge fan of Ms. Whitney’s works. He considered her a master of suspense writing and always spoke admiringly of how she would write two books–adult and young adult from a research project.

Finally, I pounced. I’ve read a few of her novels in the past, and while I never became a huge fan I recalled that her books were competent reads. I remembered Bickham’s admiration so I knew they were sound in craft. They weren’t musty. They were $2 each, and they would make a welcome change from what’s currently in the bookstore.

Phyllis Whitney was born in Japan to American parents in 1903. She died in Virginia when she was 104. Her first book was published in 1941; her last in 1997, when she was 94. She authored 39 adult suspense novels; 14 young adult books; 20 children’s mysteries, and several books on writing in addition to numerous short stories. At the height of her career, she sold millions of copies and was published in 30 languages. And although she died in 2008, she still has an active Web site. It is not difficult to find her books, and many are available in electronic format.

Over the weekend, I sat down to read one chosen at random. Without any blurb copy off the missing jacket, I had no idea what it would be about. Title:  THE WINTER PEOPLE. And I rediscovered how smooth and lyrical Ms. Whitney’s prose is.

By today’s standards, the suspense element of the story is mild, and yet the characters are psychologically complex. Modern readers know the terms:  sociopathic, schizophrenic, neurotic, pathological, border personality disorder, etc. However, Whitney doesn’t use labels. She just creates the characters and lets them take action. The evil that’s depicted seems more sinister because it lacks the terminology. As I read, I found myself thinking, I’m glad I’m not having to deal with these people in real life.

The second aspect of the story that struck me is that Ms. Whitney relies so heavily on narrative. Her scenes are short and intense by comparison to long passages of summary. I think this reliance on narrative is reflective of mid-twentieth century style. (THE WINTER PEOPLE was published in 1969.) Narration is a mode of discourse that holds readers somewhat apart from the story action, and yet it moves quickly. Today’s genre fiction tends to be more focused on dramatic scenes and their emotional aftermath, moving in sequential order, with narrative taking a back seat to them. Both ways of approaching story are viable, but styles have changed.

The third thing I noticed–with great pleasure–is how Ms. Whitney sets her hooks. They are as precisely placed as a laser cut, and even if they are merely foreshadowing they are inserted exactly where the story’s interest begins to flag. Click, and she has your attention caught once more. I believe her hooks and their placement are what generated Bickham’s greatest admiration. When I read Ms. Whitney years and years ago, I wasn’t yet good enough at writing to share that admiration. Now, I see her mastery of craft at work.

I am delighted I stumbled across these half-dozen or so books. I look forward to reading the next one in the stack.


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Goodbye, “Phelps”

This post is not about writing techniques; instead, it’s about a visitor that stayed in my backyard during the Olympics. I first found him in the bottom of the dogs’ water bowl. Thinking he was one of the obese, complacent toads that live in my yard–and not certain how well toads swim–I tried to rescue him.

He needed no help from me. One huge leap shot him out of the water and across the patio with lunging, floppy desperation. Startled, I recoiled and missed a good look at him before he gained the safety of the shrubbery. That was no toad. Mine are all well-fed and rather gentle. They hop in straight lines with ponderous dignity. I am grateful to them for doing their job eating insects, and my dogs gave up hunting them four summers ago, which has been a relief to us all.

What was this thing?

The next night, he was back in the water bowl. I got a better look at his long legs and markings before he leapt forth. The evening after that, he moved to the larger tub of water that I keep for my dogs to cool off in during very hot weather. I decided our visitor was a bull frog, and because he was so fast off the mark, I called him “Phelps.”

The question then became, Where did “Phelps” come from?

I live atop a hill. There are drainage ponds several streets away–all downhill. The closest creek is even more distant, and located on the opposite side of a busy four-lane street. So I couldn’t imagine how “Phelps” had laboriously hopped to my yard from any of those water sources. And while he was good at swimming and leaping, he wasn’t very adept at crossing the lawn. His movements on land were always frantically, desperately swift, but he was also unnaturally awkward, as though something was wrong with his legs. He was so obviously a creature of the water, yet neither I nor my terriers wanted him paddling in their daily water supply.

How, I wondered, could I catch him and take him back to a pond?

Another factor entered the equation of this puzzle. A pair of young bald eagles came into my neighborhood at the same time as “Phelps.” They would circle over houses, emitting their distinctive, two-note whistle. The sun would glint off the white feathers on their heads, and smaller birds would fight them ferociously away from nests. One morning, an irate mockingbird chased the eagle directly toward my open garage door, but thank goodness the eagle flew over the gable instead of straight inside.

I am always delighted to watch eagles, and I felt sorry for this pair. Until this spring, much of my neighborhood still contained undeveloped land thick with cedar trees and brush–home to coyotes, field mice, and rabbits. Now the brush has been bladed off, with streets and lots cut for yet more new, overpriced tract homes to be built for people who typically live in them for less than two years before their corporation transfers them elsewhere. Why had the eagles come here? Had they perhaps hatched here last year and now returned? If so, how sad a homecoming. Yet I’ve never noticed eagles here before so possibly they were seeking new hunting grounds.

It’s my guess that one of the eagles must have caught “Phelps” from a drainage pond and then dropped him in my yard. Poor “Phelps” was probably injured somewhat, which would account for his ungainly flop-hopping.

The eagles did not stay long, no doubt due to the poor hunting. The last wild habitat in this location has been eradicated, and they have gone.

“Phelps” is also gone, as suddenly as he came.

Although my Scottie–also known as the Spook–will no longer hunt toads and totally ignored “Phelps,” the Spook’s brother is much more strongly hard-wired to hunt and–whenever they corner prey–has always been the one to doggy-up and bite the toads despite their nasty taste. On the last evening I saw “Phelps,” he flung himself from the water bowl as usual and shot across our lawn, but that time he crossed paths with the Executioner, who gave chase.

I did not see the Executioner pounce, but although he’s slow, deaf, and portly, it’s possible he delivered a killing bite to poor “Phelps.” I searched the grass for a frog corpse and found nothing. Perhaps “Phelps” crawled into the shrubbery before he died. Or perhaps “Phelps” found a gap beneath the fence boards and went on his way. Let’s hope it was the latter scenario. Perhaps he will end up in a neighbor’s ground-level fountain and live happily thereafter.

At least, while he was here, he did not sing.

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