by Virginia Parker Staat
“Words have life and must be cared for.
If they are stolen for ugly uses or careless slang or false promotion work,
they need to be brought back to their original meaning – back to their roots.” ~ Corita Kent
David and I have just returned home from a four-month camping trip through Alaska and Canada. After the RMOWP conference, we traveled north through Utah and Washington. On our first ferry up the Inside Passage, we met a delightful Australian couple. We soon became fast friends and, while island hopping over the next month, learned some wonderful Aussie slang. As an example, after waiting three hours for a lack-luster bore tide, Liz called it a fizzer. After six days of rain, we all agreed it was a bugger.
Slang has ever been a part of language, and America has certainly had its share. In the 60s it was groovy, cool, and far-out. In the 80s, super superlatives were all the rage, including radical, grody to the max, and gag me with a spoon. Today’s slang doesn’t even sound like English to me. When I photographed a friend’s wedding and the groom told me you’re da bomb, I was initially mortified. I simply cringe whenever I hear my bad.
When we use slang in our writing, it dates our work. A new danger to good writing, however, is the onslaught of electronic messaging. Texting has reduced much of our slang into acronyms such as LOL (lots of laughs) and TMI (too much information). Even our emotions have been diminished to a few letters, including SOBT (stressed out big time), MEGO (my eyes glazed over), and OMG! (oh, my gosh).
Dare we include an acronym such as OMG! in our writing? No…. please, no. We writers must remember our craft requires us to use the artistry of words rather than digress into slang, acronyms, or smiley faces. The question, however, remains: How do we express what today’s slang would call an OMG! moment? First of all, whatever we write, we resist typing words in all caps and omit exclamation points.
We begin writing emotion by showing rather than telling. Seton Hill University English professor Dennis Jerz explains, “‘Telling’ states facts or observations. ‘Showing’ invites much deeper understanding.”
Becca Puglisi, author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, explains that readers want to feel emotion along with our characters rather than being told. She says, “The best way to do this is by giving emotional cues that the reader can relate to.” She advises using a three-pronged approach. Whenever possible, we show emotion by choosing physical, internal, and mental responses that are fresh and not overused.
Writers do this by moving beyond facial expressions. We use active verbs. We use adjectives rather than adverbs. We focus on action and response. We remove filters to say, “My heart raced” rather than “I felt my heart racing.” We show details that imply our emotional reaction to the problem. We give our readers a reason to feel the emotion along with us. Rather than clichés, we use imagery and simile, choosing our words with deliberation.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings offers a beautiful example of explaining an emotion with simile. Bilbo says, “I am old, Gandalf… Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”
We can also heighten emotion for our readers through writing syntax. In Alone with All that Can Happen, author and creative writing professor David Jauss writes, “Given that syntax is not just structure but a sequence – a flow – that generates ‘dynamics of feeling,’ it stands to reason that one purpose of syntactical variation is to convey rhythmically the emotion we wish to create in the reader.” He concludes that we can write structurally and rhythmically to mirror emotions, much like a soundtrack mirrors emotions in a movie.
Outdoor writer Peter Matthiessen exceled at this kind of writing. We can see how his use of syntax adds to the drama of a moment in his personal narrative The Snow Leopard: “My foot slips on a narrow ledge; in that split second, as needles of fear pierce heart and temples, eternity intersects with present time.” Within the rhythm of this sentence, Matthiessen expresses his emotional response. He uses action verbs, avoiding weak filters like “I felt.” His poetic words pulse with energy and build to a crescendo.
Writing an OMG! moment begins when we recognize our own physical, internal, and mental responses to situations. It is enhanced when we offer our readers a reason to feel along with us, enveloping them with language and syntax that mirrors the dynamics of the emotion. Once mastered, in the words of our Aussie friends, I can guarantee it’ll be good on ya, mate.