The Joy of Nuance: The dreaded Thesaurus Rex
A thesaurus can be a writer’s best friend, but like all good friends it can lead us into trouble. When we gleefully substitute synonyms for the word we’re overusing it is essential we pay attention to the nuances of meaning. Let’s look at smile as an example.
Here are some synonyms: beam, grin, laugh, smirk, simper
In context beam is a broad smile, especially delighted. A child might beam when given a new toy, for example. But if you simply replace smile with beam, you could end up with a something like this:
Mary greeted John with a tight-lipped beam. “You’re late, again.” She spoke in a fake, cheery voice to hide her anger from the kids.
Even if you take out tight-lipped it doesn’t make sense.
Grin is a wide happy smile, and is probably the closest synonym.
The most commonly used synonym is smirk. It is one of my most loathed words because it is used so often and so often wrong. A smirk is a nasty smile. There is an edge of meanness to a smirk. Synonyms of smirk include sneer and leer. A bully smirks when they know they have you trapped. Yet I have seen sentences like this:
Patrick lifted Lucia’s veil and smirked at her. Married life with her was going to be fun.
Ouch, I wouldn’t want to be Lucia.
Simper isn’t a word we use a lot these days, it is a weak, kind of manipulative smile. A debutante might simper at an eligible bachelor.
All this is not to say don’t use synonyms, but use them with the nuance of meanings clear in your mind.
Let’s take another word; look. Characters are always looking at things, under things, inside of things. We can’t use look all the time. So off to the thesaurus we go, and we hit the jackpot. There are a couple of dozen words we can use in place of look. Most people use three or four of them: glance, notice, stare, and occasionally peek.
As with the synonyms of smile, there are nuances a writer needs to pay attention to. A glance is a brief thing, a second and it’s done. So, if your hero is checking the street for wandering zombie ninjas, he’ll need more than a glance. He may want to inspect the street, or survey it.
You need more than a sparse handful of synonyms to add punch to your writing. Don’t be afraid to use the Thesaurus, but at the same time consider the shades of meaning in different words. Why write ‘He took a quick look.’ when ‘He glanced’ works as well. If your character stares into the depths of a pool, and she’s been doing a lot of staring lately, perhaps she contemplates the depths.
One of the things I find myself saying a lot is to trade in your adverbs for stronger verbs. When you are spitting out a first draft the adverbs are easy. She walked elegantly. He walked stiffly. So you end up using walk a hundred times or more in your story.
When you start the editing process, whether you go chapter by chapter or finish the draft and edit the book as a whole. Do a search for ly which will catch most of the adverbs in your story. For each adverb look at some synonyms for the verb it is modifying to find one that will send the same message without the adverb. She swept into the room. He clumped to the barn.
While I’m here in the land of synonyms and verbs, there are a couple of verbs you don’t want to mess with. Said and asked. As we covered in Boring Beats, modifying said and asked may lead to a condition known a Swiftisms. Named after Tom Swift who pranced across the pages many years ago. Tom is mostly remember now for the perhaps intentional humour of his modifiers.
“We must run!” Tom said swiftly. Google it, laugh, then deep six the modifiers you used to make said more interesting.
Now, resist the temptation to have your characters announce, state, scream, retort etc. This is one area where the Thesaurus is going to bite you. There are six pages of synonyms for say. Use them when you are in narrative summary or a character is talking about talking.
“…and so Jerry just announces he is taking charge, but Hank stated I would take over in his absence. Jerry screamed when I wouldn’t do what he ordered. ‘I’ll just call Hank,’ I retorted. That shut him up.”
There is no need to be afraid of the Thesaurus, with proper use and daily exercise it will strengthen your writing, filling it with subtlety and power.