How to Entertain Readers with Your Words

by Guest Contributor

Man juggling against brick wall

Today’s post is written by Frederick Fuller. Thanks, Frederick!

In Anatole France’s story The Juggler of Notre Dame, Barnabé, the juggler, performs before the altar of the Virgin Mary as his gift to the Holy Mother.

He offers to the Holy Mother all he has, from what he is, a juggler. And the astonished Prior and other monks who are watching see Her appear and bless Barnabé.

Writer are Barnabés. We perform for our readers. Instead of copper balls and knives that Barnabé used, writers use words.

Choose Words that Engage the Five Senses

Using the premise from poet John Ciardi that poetry is a performing art as well—with poets juggling words in ways that astound and entertain their readers—I contend that fiction writers mount dramas on their pages.

And like poets, we choose words that engage our five senses. Take John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In chapter three, he turns a casual observation of a turtle crossing a highway into a lesson on endurance.

A turtle slowly makes its way through the grass toward the highway. He doesn’t really walk, but drags his shell along, neck out-stretched with humorous eyes looking ahead.

Steinbeck does not force this lesson upon us, but allows it to seep into the Goads’ struggle to get to California and their determination to endure. He takes a snapshot that defines endurance and gives the reader the honor of figuring it out. He performs the scene for our entertainment and edification.

Consider How Personal Experience Affects Word Meaning

Words mean what they mean in direct proportion to our experience with them. When we encounter most any word, it effects a reaction in our psyches and we see, hear, smell, taste or feel what the word means to us.

Example: A father abuses his child. The child goes to church and hears the words Father God. Her experience with “father” causes her to reject the concept of God the Father.

To be successful, fiction writers must touch their readers with words they believe will call forth the five senses. Whatever a writer wants to do to his reader, sensitive word choice is essential, and it will take time and planning to achieve it.

Use Your Thesaurus Wisely

My writing coach, an accomplished published author, told me to not make my work appear made by thesaurus. Be careful, she warned, about using synonyms, especially “big words” that you think will show your great scholarship but only exposes you as an amateur.

She is right. So was George Orwell when he admonished writers to “never use a long word when a short one will do.”

Sound advice. Echos Mark Twain when he advised: “Pick a worthy subject. Stick to that subject. And say what you have to say in as few words as possible.” I agree with all that advice, and it is always in my mind when I write.

However (always a however), my contention is that writers should read thesauri and dictionaries like non-fiction “how to” books. We are not called wordsmiths for nothing.

For we do “smith” words. We treat them with intimacy, we hammer them until they say what we want them to say, and we forge them by means of art into shapes that will intrigue, astonish, amaze and entertain our readers.

Be a Barnabé, juggling, dancing, singing, turning cartwheels–whatever we need to cause readers to come back for more. Writing is not just a craft; it is performance.

Break a leg!

Frederick Fuller is a writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. A retired teacher of English and Theatre Arts, he is the author of two novels, For the Heart’s Treasure and Children of Bast, both available in print and e-book formats. Catch him at his site Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat, friend him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter. Check out his books at Goodreads.

  • Cindy Huff

    I appreciate the visual picture in your post. the practice of using a few powerful words rather than many flowery ones is the mark of a true artist. Thank you for reminding us to touch the five senses. Although we humans use all the five senses each individual may be more sensitive to one sense over another. My daughter is extremely sensitive to smell.If your cologne is too strong she may take an instant disliking to you. As a writer it is easy to write from the one sense we are most sensitive too. I am more visual so I may leave a sound or smell out of a description.
    Fredrick, I appreciated your insight regarding the use of my thesaurus and dictionary. Never thought of reading them like a non-fiction how-to book. Thank you for your insights.

  • Joanna Aislinn

    Love the perspective of writer=performer. Scenes are, essentially, staged, so that’s a great analogy and wonderful tips to go along with making it as virtually real as they can be! Thanks for sharing this!

  • Nina Cornett

    Good advice. I’ve always loved Mark Twain’s attitude toward writing, as well as the result. He is one of my favorite authors: I like all his books but especially Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It. I’ve never checked the quotation, but he is alleged to have said, “If I’d had more time, I could have written a shorter book.”

    Shifting subjects: you will no doubt received many emails pointing out that it is the Joads, not the Goads, in The Grapes of Wrath. I sympathize with the error, which is probably typographical, because errors are appallingly easy to make.

  • Josh Sarz

    Totally agree with your point on making your words like a thesaurus, and that we shouldn’t make them “too difficult” for the readers. Sometimes, it just shows that you’re overdoing it. But it depends on your audience.

  • Rose Byrd

    Yes, writing is a performance. Yes, we are wordsmiths. Yes, we must appeall to the five senses. We must interweave what would seem unimportant with the central action in such a way that the trivia sheds light down into the center, the heart of the action. The performance of writing requires immersion into the roles. We must lose ourselves for a time in order for others (readers) to find themselves in the finished product.

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