Writing: The Wrong Word
Something I need to tell you, for this story to make sense–in the real world, in my ‘real job’, I frame pictures for a living.
I know. I know. I’m the only person you know who does that, probably. But anyway.
A few years ago, a lady came into my shop. She had an oil painting with her, and wanted to get it framed fairly quickly. It was a nice painting–a landscape, I think. We chose a nice frame to go on it.
“Just to warn you,” she told me, “I only finished it a little while ago. It’s still wet.”
I touched one of the edges lightly. Sure enough, the paint was still gummy, as it is on a half-dry oil painting.
“Okay,” says I. “Thanks for letting me know.” And I wrote a few words on the ticket to let everybody else know, too.
I didn’t think anything more of it until I handed her a copy of the ticket. She looked it over.
Her eyebrows went way, way up. She was looking at the title I’d put on the piece: and, under it, at the condition.
Oh, shit, my brain said to me, as I realized what I’d done. She opened her mouth.
“…tacky?” she said. “You think my painting is tacky?”
Luckily, she was a nice woman, and once I’d explained it to her she thought it was pretty funny.
Why am I mentioning this? As a lesson, writer friends.
‘Tacky’ was, absolutely, the most accurate word to describe the condition of the painting. When an oil painting is half-dry, as that one was, the texture can hardly be described any other way.
However, in that situation, the most accurate word wasn’t the right word.
Why? Because no one wants to see a ticket with the word ‘tacky’ scrawled on it, describing their own artwork. If I’d taken a second and used my person-brain I would’ve figured that out. But I didn’t–I used my framer-brain instead, which is slow and socially inept, but really good at fractions and things like how to apply gold leaf. And my framer-brain, touching the picture, said tacky.
I got lucky. If I’d been in that lady’s place, a framer probably would’ve died that morning.
Some words, no matter how accurate they are, aren’t the right words in a story, for reasons your social-brain will tell you, if you give it a second. Tacky is probably never a good word to describe someone’s artwork, even if the texture fits that description perfectly. It’s better, in such a case, to say the painting is ‘wet’, even though it isn’t, strictly speaking. People will understand what you mean, and you don’t run the risk of misleading them with your word choices.
Another example: I’m writing a story which features twin brother exorcists (I know, I know). I wrote a scene recently in which they were debating a bunch of lies someone had recently told them, and this sentence happened:
“Oh, brother,” Deacon said.
Deacon is, of course, interjecting due to the ridiculousness. To his brother, Derek.
To his brother.
Is it an interjection? Is it a call for help? If I used that phrase, who the hell would know?
It’s exactly the phrase he would use in that situation. But it’s not the right one.
I guess what I’m saying can be summed up thusly: when you’re debating word choice, spare a moment of thought for the audience. The right word is, after all, only the right word if everyone understands you, and situational circumstances can affect whether people will understand you or not.
In a scene where someone is pooping, no one should stub a toe and say shit.
In a scene where two SeaWorld employees are feeding killer whales in a tank, neither one of them should talk about how they’re drowning in something plentiful, or how difficult it is to stay above water.
Sounds easy, no? It’s harder than you think. (A phrase which, in turn, shouldn’t be used if your geologist MC is cracking through rock strata).
The exception is, of course, when you’re going for a deliberate pun. I leave you guys to figure out when that’s applicable, as puns usually speak for themselves.
But there is nothing–nothing–more painful on this Earth than an unintentional pun.
There isn’t an easy way to avoid it, sadly–except to be on your guard, and have a beta reader or two. Other people tend to notice pretty quickly when an explorer makes ‘no bones about’ the skeleton he just found in the ruins.