About a year and a half ago I wrote a column in which I said “Fiction is made of sentences.” Though not false, that statement isn’t exactly the truth. Last week a sharp-eyed, if not-up-to-date, reader from Atlanta wrote to correct me. “It’s not the sentence that is the basic building block,” claims Joshua Collins, “but the word. With the wrong words, you can’t build a good sentence.”
And, of course, he’s right.
Words are our raw materials. In any act of creation, the higher quality and better chosen the raw material, the better the result. Words are the atoms out of which your fictional universe is constructed.
So if words are the basis of fiction, the specific words you choose (what’s known as diction) will have a tremendous effect on the quality of your story. Yes, plot and character and setting and all those other things also matter–a lot–but each of those elements comes to your readers only through words. Word choice can turn a good story into a bad one, or vice versa.
So what makes a word choice or a phrase choice (a phrase merely being a clump of words that like to hang around together) “good”? Four things: tone, vividness, consistency and rhythm.
Tone: A Primer on English Words