When Words Fail
by Sloan Parker
There have been many times in my life when the words to say what was in my heart wouldn’t come easily. I can think of three offhand: the first time I met my sweetie, when my grandparents died and I had no words for my parents in their grief, and when I came out to my family.
Somehow, in each of those moments, I muddled through and found the words to use. Whether they were the “perfect” words didn’t matter in the end. They were the best words I had at the time.
You’d think as I writer I’d have more days where I find the right words than where I don’t. Some days I do. Some days it’s like pulling teeth to get one sentence down, especially when writing a first draft.
It’s not that I don’t have ideas. I’m a plotter so I usually know where I’m heading in a story. In fact, the ideas come so quickly, it can often be difficult to get down exactly how I want the scene to sound. I know what I want to have happen, I know how I want the characters to react, I know what they are feeling, but when I start to write it, the words just won’t fit what I’m picturing.
So what do I do?
What works best for me is to plow through. Get all the ideas down, no matter how simple or redundant the language and descriptions I’m using, so that I don’t lose the picture. Once I have the basic scene laid out, I can play with words and phrases and descriptions and characterizations to find new ways of describing actions and settings and character details and reactions. I can give more life to the story.
All that layering doesn’t always come second nature. I’ve found revising takes longer than plotting or writing the first draft. But I’ve also found that revising is where magical things happen, where character details and twists in the story pop up out of nowhere.
It’s after that level of layering and revising that I hope the story and characters shine through, and the writing and words disappear for the reader.
So even though words fail me sometimes, I do believe the better a story is written, the more the words stop mattering to the reader. They are so engaged in what is happening, to whom, and the resulting emotional impact. It’s only when the writing fails that they are pulled out of the story and are reminded they are reading a book.
So the hard work of pushing through moments where words fail can really pay off.