More on Dickens and word choice
Published: December 1, 2007
|Thomas C. Renzi wrote on what Charles Dickens can teach writers about word choice in the February 2008 issue of The Writer. In the following Workout sidebar, he offers you some exercises aimed at developing your ability to use connotation.|
To become proficient at using connotation, we have work at it deliberately. Here are two exercises to improve this skill.
1. Revise a description you've already written. Decide whether you want to suggest a favorable or unfavorable impression of some person, place or thing. Saturate the passage with word choices, figures of speech, symbolism and images that reinforce your desired tonal quality. Because this is an exercise, you're free to exaggerate the connotations. Overwriting can be pared down in later revisions.
2. A second exercise is to write out a neutral sentence and then expand it into a description that conveys a positive or negative tone. Use appropriate word choices, images and figures of speech to suit your objective. For example, take the neutral statement, "John took his dog out for a walk." If we wanted to imply that John enjoyed this activity, we might develop our description this way:
Boxie leaped excitedly by the door, the gateway to freedom. John gently patted Boxie on the head and fastened the leash to his collar. It was a critical moment for man and dog, a bonding experience, when the animal knew exactly why he didn't bite the hand that fed him. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship: John felt exhilarated from the exercise and Boxie was thrilled to discover new foreign smells in his neighborhood.
Now invert the tone by implying just how much John hates this task:
The six o'clock ordeal--the dreaded seven-minute trek around the neighborhood, all for the sake of pleasing little Boxie. How a four-pound toy poodle could control the life of a grown man was beyond John's comprehension. Setting aside this time every evening for the curly-haired rodent was bad enough. But what John hated most was--The Bag. How embarrassing, waiting for little Boxie to deposit his business on a neighbor's lawn and then having to manipulate The Bag like a glove in order to pick up said business and avoid his neighbors' wrath. He had to carry The Bag at arm's length all the way home, as if he were transporting dangerous radioactive material through the neighborhood. Well, Delilah wanted a dog, so they bought a dog. If Delilah wanted an elephant, they'd get an elephant. In that case, she could just walk it around the neighborhood herself. John would have loved to see the size of The Bag she'd have to carry.
It's a common axiom that writing should be followed by rewriting and then more rewriting. The advantage to employing connotation is that, when we revise, we have a definite goal in mind: We know exactly why we're changing words and expressions within a passage, what tonal effect we're trying to achieve, and what meanings we're trying to imply.