A Mis-chosen Word
The old noir-author stumbled over the abrupt appearance of a word, right in his path. It brought him to a complete halt, his hands poised in mid-air, hovering over the typewriter, interrupting the flow of his plot. It popped up unexpectedly, right after a verb, posing as an adverb — yet it wasn’t something he intended to use. He was Frank Nitti, machine-gunning lead onto the page. His sentences were canine-hard and percussive, packed with consonants. They chewed walnuts, demolished wooden crates, cursed like a Slavic gangster, while defiantly raking a shiv on the prison bars of his cell.
The intruder was feminine-soft, feline, pregnant with vowels, elongated as a lover’s moan, and as round as old Appalachian hills. No Rockies, here. It was as if the old man had suddenly awakened from a jarring dream and found himself in a tropical land of deep-breath syllables full of air. The runaway violence of the story was suddenly diffused, deflated, and rendered impotent by the soothing grace of the aerated word.
While searching for a word to use, I thought of the importance of how it sounds as well as how close it means to what I want to say. A mis-chosen word can disrupt the tenor of what I’m writing, the mood — the temperature, if you will — of the alley I’m leading the reader into. Perhaps it’s my musical mind being sensitive to how a word actually sounds, apart from its meaning.
The sudden introduction of an out-of-place word (the meaning of which might be perfectly fine) in the established rhythm of a sentence can quickly change the pace or feeling. Kind of like driving on a horribly corrugated dirt road, jarring every tooth in your head, then suddenly hitting smooth pavement. I have encountered situations where that happens and I did not want it to. So I make an effort to change the word to something more, say, staccato (“kitty cat” instead of “feline,” for example), or whatever the sentence was doing at the time.
Comedians talk about how words with a “k” sound are funny. “I spent a month last weekend in Albuquerque.” Funny. “I spent a month last weekend in Duluth.” Not as funny. “I live in an old Buick.” Ha-ha. “I live in a Datsun.” Ho-hum.
Think of the power of the sound of a word. The wrong choice of synonym can quickly disrupt the energetic momentum of a story, turning it on a dime. Listen to your words. Do they sound like what you mean?