Monday, November 18, 2013

The Power of Words

Two years ago I had the wonderful opportunity to work with a rehab shelter for young women, most of them under twenty-one and many pregnant, who were recovering from drug addiction.  One of the most powerful things we discovered for all of them was their inability to use words to express their emotions.  We worked on this for many months with poetry writing, letter writing, and finally they wrote a play which they produced and put on for family, friends and their children.  It was a wonderful experience and one I miss and hope to repeat in the future.

Words are our most powerful weapon.  We use them to convey our love, our disapproval and sometimes to manipulate people.  As a motivational speaker we use words to change the thoughts, beliefs and sometimes the actions of the people we're speaking to.

In writing, authors use words to convey the emotions and sometimes the personalities of their characters.  My sister-in-law commented that I sometimes used "bad words" in my novels.  I laughed and stated: "It's hard to write a hard-core FBI agent who comes upon a brutal murder scene and have him say "sugar-beads.'"

So what gives words their power?  Basically they're hooks.  And the power lies in the meaning of the word to the persons who hear them.  Powerful weapons, or meaningless manipulations.  Words trigger emotions and emotions trigger actions.  I could say "I love you", but I don't know who is reading this post so if I don't know you, how can I possible truly love you.  I could say "I hate you", but the same would hold true.  I don't know you, so how can I possibly feel strongly enough about you to hate you?

Words without an emotional attachment are usually meaningless to the person reading or listening to them, and basically in time will bore a person to tune them out.  So how do we write exciting words that keep our readers turning pages?  We have to combine those words with emotions and meaning.  We do that with body language and punctuation.

Carrie turned back to the sink and continued slicing vegetables. "I said no."
Carrie turned back to the sink and continued slicing vegetables. "I said no!"
Carrie turned back to the sink, sighing deeply as she slammed the knife into the cutting board. "I.. said... no."

Each of these basically say pretty much the same thing, but express a different emotional state.  In sentence one, Carrie is basically just telling her listener that the answer is no. She's said it before, but she's still calm, and conveying the message without anger or frustration.  In sentence two Carrie is getting angry and frustrated and shouting "I said no!"  Her body language is still controlled and she's expressing her anger through her words only.   In sentence three Carrie is basically losing control as she slams the knife into the cutting board, taking her anger out both in her words and her body language.

As a method of power, sentence one might be enough for someone who was simply asking a question, like a child who wants a cookie.  Carrie says no, end of it with a well mannered child or someone listening who is willing to take no for an answer.  Sentence two goes further and could be the mother who is tired and has a  child, or adult for that matter, who repeatedly asks the same question. It insinuates she's said no before and more than once.  Sentence three is basically a woman who has pretty much reached the end of her rope.  Emphasizing each individual word  She isn't shouting, but using what is actually a more dangerous tone of voice.  Most likely deep, bitter and controlled.

With writing, as with life--emotions run the show.  Love, joy, pleasure, anger, fear, pain.  The only way your reader can possibly feel these emotions is if your character is feeling those emotions.  Jacody Ives said it best in The Gifts--the impact of words was in direct correlation to the emotions of the reader. Words could be twisted, knives to open up wounds long hidden. Maneuvered to evoke buried nightmares. Bare the soul, expose the wound, and you had a best seller.  Make them laugh.  Make them cry.  But above all, make them feel something.

A good writing habit is to set aside what you wrote this morning and come back to it in several hours.  Look at the scene, the words or conversation between characters.  Have you conveyed what your character is feeling?  Do you feel it?  Have you conveyed what your character is thinking?  Do you feel it?   If you feel it, then there's a good chance your readers will feel it, making their reading experience far more enjoyable.

Have a wonderful day!

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