Sun 1 Sep 2013
by Jim Harrington
I read a story a few weeks ago that contained the sentence, “He wished he owned a dog.” This may not be the exact sentence, but it’s close enough. I stopped reading when I got there and thought, what a waste.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the author chose the exact right words. I bet not, though.
Why did I think the sentence a waste? The word dog bothered me. Wouldn’t the reader learn more about the character by naming a specific breed of dog? Sure, I know the character likes dogs, as opposed to cats, or goldfish, or parakeets, but why not go for more? Why not write, “He wished he owned a pit bull.” Now, my curiosity is piqued, and I want to continue reading to find out why he wants a pit bull. Of course, the impact of the breed choice depends on the context. Here’s an example.
Shea’s head rose above those of his classmates, like a lone skyscraper hovering over a notched cityscape. He ambled from his classroom to other activities, tilted to one side, his shoulder rubbing against the wall. Mrs. Kelly, his sixth grade teacher, barked at Shea to stand straight. The kids, especially Kevin, teased Shea. Kevin went farther than that. Today, as Kevin approached on the playground, Shea wished he owned a dog.
Okay, there’s the setup. Now, what about the end phrase of that last sentence?
Shea wished he owned a dog. This sounds like Shea is looking for something to distract him from the approaching Kevin. It’s neither positive nor negative in my mind, and tells me little about Shea (other than his pet preference as noted above).
Shea wished he owned a pit bull. Now, I wonder, does Shea want a pit bull for protection? Does he want to train the dog to attack Kevin? Or does Shea think a pit bull will scare Kevin away? Is that all Shea wants? I have an insight into Shea that I want to learn more about. Why a pit bull?
Shea wished he owned a pomeranian. Maybe Shea wants a companion to sit with him in the corner of his room at home. Maybe he wants a small dog he can control, as opposed to Kevin whom Shea can’t. Maybe Shea has more sinister ideas for the dog. Maybe he simply wants an unquestioning friend who will accept him as he is, unlike his school mates. As a reader, I want to know more.
Here’s an example of a wasted verb.
Sara walked toward the street corner. Lots of people walk. What makes Sara different from everyone else walking on the street? If she isn’t, why should the reader care?
Sara struggled to reach the street corner. Why? What happened? Was she shot? Did she trip? Over a body? Is there a strong wind blowing her off balance? Does the wind equate to something else happening in her life? Is she carrying something that’s heavy and/or awkward? Again, a simple change of verb elevates the action and brings the reader into the story.
Being specific in word choice is essential in writing flash. Choose words, especially nouns and verbs, that do more than fill space. Don’t say he wants a dog. Let the reader know what breed of dog. Don’t say she drives a car (or truck, or motorcycle). Be specific. An elderly female driving a Ford Focus provides the reader with a different perspective on the character than an elderly woman who zooms into a parking lot driving a Corvette. With flash, the writer has a limited number of words to work with. Don’t waste them.
Here’s a challenge if you dare attempt it. Select one or two sentences from a story you’re currently working on and underline all the verbs and nouns. Now change them to words that are vibrant and challenging to the reader. Use words like struggled instead of walked and pit bull instead of dog. When you’re done, feel free to share the original sentence and the improved one in the comments section. WARNING: Don’t change words for the sake of change. Change words because they improve the reading experience.
Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. His stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Ink Sweat and Tears, Near to the Knuckle, Flashes in the Dark, and others. He serves as the Managing Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read more of his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.