5 Ways to Use Creative Word Choices to Surprise Your Reader
If you want to snag the attention of an agent, your book’s concept needs to be irresistible. But what’s going to buoy your book up above the other great concepts in the submission pile is the quality of your writing. And I don’t just mean polished writing. I mean writing that is unique and captivating. If you want to give yourself a leg up, I suggest you add a revision step and edit your manuscript for creative word choices.
When I say creative word choices, I’m not necessarily talking about using unusual words. For one thing, unusual words can make the language ring untrue. Certainly, if you use a word in your memoir you wouldn’t normally use in real life, it will feel off. And if you use a word in your fiction that doesn’t seem suited to your narrator or character, a reader might wonder if you’ve spent too much time poking around in the thesaurus.
A better stylistic move is to use a usual word in an unusual way. This allows you to create natural moments of delight and surprise for your reader, and no thesaurus is needed because your brain already has the word bank it needs to pull this off.
To give you some ideas for your own writing, I’ve gathered five examples of how other writers have used creative word choices in various ways in their novels.
1. Take Something General and Make it Distinct
In writing, we often talk about avoiding the abstract and going for the specific. Readers bring their own associations to words, so the more general your language, the greater chance that different readers will imagine different things when they read it. In the following sentence from Lark and Termite, notice how Jayne Ann Phillips steers a general word toward something more distinct.
“The spongy ground sinks underfoot, ripened and dark as any fermented secret.”Jayne Ann Phillips
“Ripened and dark” would have been good enough for most writers, but that added word “fermented,” to further modify the secret, immediately evokes the idea of decomposition, of something going sour. A precisely chosen and well-placed adjective can convey mood, tone, and content.
2. Turn a Noun Into a Verb
Many of the verbs we use every day are derived from nouns—spearhead, email, workshop, etc. You have an opportunity in your own writing to offer readers a brand-new noun-to-verb conversion we haven’t heard before. Here’s an example from Jane Austen’s Emma:
“Let me not suppose that she dare goes about Emma Woodhouse-ing me!”Jane Austen
As Austen demonstrates, almost any noun can be turned into a verb in the right situation. When you use a word as a non-customary part of speech, you can create a moment of pleasure, and potentially even humor, for your reader.
3. Pair Words That Don’t Normally Go Together
This is the kind of wordplay that poets live by and that prose writers would do well to employ. In Nutshell, by Ian McEwan, the following words are spoken by the unborn fetus who narrates the story and plays witness to his mother and uncle’s deceit.
“I count myself as an innocent, but it seems I’m party to a plot. My mother, bless her unceasing, loudly squelching heart, seems to be involved.”Ian McEwan
A heart that squelches seems so wonderfully unpleasant. I hear a sucking sound. I imagine mucky blood. And without really thinking about it, a reader might bring another definition of “squelch” to their experience of this sentence—to suppress or silence. It fits so perfectly in the context of the story, and yet it’s unexpected.
4. Give Your Character a Verbal Mannerism
P.G. Wodehouse’s infamous English gentleman Bertie Wooster is a marvelous example of a character with highly-stylized speech. Here’s a bit of dialogue from Right Ho, Jeeves:
“Egads, Jeeves! Fancy that. It’s a small world isn’t it, what?”P.G. Wodehouse
Now, there’s not a more usual word in the world than “what.” And the usual place for a speaker to end this sentence would be after “it.” But Bertie is not a usual man and he often tacks an extraneous “what” onto the ends of his sentences—and the reader loves it. It’s fun. It’s distinctive. It’s Bertie.
5. Twist a Familiar Phrase
A fun way to please your reader is to take a phrase that is common, cliché even, and twist it into something new and unique. In the following passage from James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, Pa is a preaching barber whose client has just quoted a Bible verse to him:
“Hot goodness, that’s a winner!” Pa said, leaping into the air and clapping his boots together.”James McBride
We’re used to hearing people shout “hot damn,” but “hot goodness” is so much more in keeping with the speech of this pious character and adds to the comicality of the scene.
It is important to remember that using creative word choices requires some restraint. Trying something linguistically surprising in every paragraph will wear out your reader. You want your prose to feel natural, not like you’re performing tricks.
But sometimes all you need is one word to punch up a character and distinguish their personality from someone else’s, to take a sentence from drab to delightful. Using the element of surprise in your story is not just a plotting tactic. It’s also useful when considering your prose.