The subtlety of words

In fiction, word choices are as important as they are in poetry.

86512-referencebooksRecently, a friend of mine put the following up on Facebook:

Advice both elegant and succinct on how to distinguish between the words “elusive” and “illusory,” from “Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” 2/e: “The elusive mocks its pursuer, the illusory its possessor.”

One of the comments on the thread noted that the person had never used the word illusory, but that this might encourage them to do so. While I too don’t recall ever using the word illusory, this type of thing always has me rushing off to my trusty thesaurus.

When I looked at the entries for these two words, I found that “elusive” is: indefinable, subtle, intangible, vague, or obscure. On the other hand “illusory” is: deceptive, false, misleading or erroneous. Both of these words are beautiful, as are all of those that could easily be used as their substitutes. So why use elusive when you can use obscure; why use illusory when you can say misleading?

The secret, of course, is in their subtle differences. The differences we feel in them when we read or say them. And it is these nuances that make the difference between extraordinary and mundane writing.  But don’t get me wrong. Choosing a beautifully unusual word instead of one that seems simple isn’t what does the trick. No, it has to be organic and come from within. And you can feel it automatically if the writer has been letting the words flow or if they’ve been trolling for synonyms. The latter is what you’ll find in the bargain bins, selling for less than the price of the pulp itself. The former will inspire and thrill you and become a treasure on your shelves.

Yes a good novel needs characters you can identify with and an interesting story to tell. But without the language to set the tone, even the most fascinating people and most amazing story would still end up falling flat. In this, writing fiction isn’t all that different than writing poetry.

Yes, poetry. And no, I don’t mean the stuff that sounds like an attempt at what gets put on the inside of Hallmark card. (Don’t get me started. I can’t tell you how often have tried to be polite when someone shows me a poem that sounds like the writer has been regurgitating a rhyming dictionary! Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with poems that rhyme, but if they’re going to use it, then at least use a consistent meter as well. Rant over.)

I’m not saying that writers should avoid using their reference library from time to time. I’m only saying that – as with everything else in life (and if the cliché fits… ) – All things in moderation.

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