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Words as Mood Setters…or Killers

As I was reading Chuck Wendig‘s blog this morning (as I do most mornings depending on the degree of my health or severity of my hangover) about “25 Reasons That Writers are Bug Fuck Nuts,” it occurred to me that, while he hit the most salient points, he forgot to mention a rather important one:

Writers are obsessed with the Hunt for the Perfect Word to set a mood.

Seriously, we are, and anybody who says differently has probably never written anything more descriptive than a grocery list, or maybe a suicide note.  Look at us, we have dictionaries and thesauri both written and digital, we have new words and clever descriptive phrases scribbled on crumpled cocktail napkins, old condom wrappers, and the backs of our hands. We have pile of books surrounding us, some dogeared and with particular passages underlined because we just happened to like another writer’s particular turn of phrase. We live for words, we worship them; they are both our tools and the bane of our existence. Finding the right word to set a particular mood is an obsession I tell you, and Word!Crack is more powerful than any drug ever made or imagined.

The question remains though, is the obsession for new words worth the effort?

Maybe, maybe not.  Like my favorite .45, words have appropriate and inappropriate uses, and should be tailored to the character using them. Words, again like a .45, can be mood makers and mood breakers.  You don’t think a .45 is a mood changer?  Wait until you have one aimed at your head.  I’ll wait right here while you change your shorts.

Right then, let’s take an example shall we?  (I can hear the moans from the back of the room.  Shut up and just go with me on this, okay?) Swell.

Let’s take three perfectly good English words…say evisceratedefenestrate, and buttocks. Got that?  Good. Three perfectly correct words that will make or break our scene depending on their appropriateness. Now to set the scenario.

It’s the climatic chapter of your novel, the Hero, let’s call him Randy Horndog, is finally facing off with the evil Demon, Shitforbrains. The Demon is armed with fangs, claws, and superhuman strength while our hero is down to only his trusty blade; it’s either one’s fight to win or lose as they are both in the process of bleeding out all over the white shag carpet in the fiftieth floor apartment belonging to Randy’s girlfriend. The floor and walls are awash with blood, every piece of furniture is in splinters, and the air in the room is heavy and close with the sharp scents of extra spicy testosterone, blood, and Demony evil. Got the mood here? Cool beans bucko. Hang in there.

Now, the expected dialog might be like:

Shitforbrains took a shuffling step backwards, more to give him relief from Randy’s bright, biting blade than fear of his Human opponent.

 “What now Horndog?” asked the Demon in a rasping voice.  “Do you really think that little pig sticker of yours can kill me?”

 Randy’s blood smeared lips curled into an evil sneer. “I ain’t gonna kill ya,” said Horndog. “The fall will do that.”

 “Fall?” asked the Demon.

 “Yeah, after I fuckin’ gut ya with this blade, I’m gonna toss yer bleeding Demon ass out that window.  We’re fifty floors up shithead.  Even you can’t survive a fall that.  Not in your condition. I’ll just sit hear and listen to your last scream all the way down until you splat on the pavement. Should be fun.”

Okay, bravado, desperation and imminent death all in one short scene. So what about our three words? Well, unless it’s Professor Randall Horndog of the Harvard School of English Literature, who moonlights as a wet work, black ops specialist for the CIA Department of Subterranean Affairs, you’re probably not going to hear:

 “Yes, the fall. You see after I eviscerate you, I thoroughly intend to defenestrate your buttocks.  We’re fifty floors up dear boy.  At an acceleration rate of fifteen feet per second per second, even you shant survive a fall like that.  Not in your present, weakened condition.”

Get it?  Our three words just killed the mood, even though they were used correctly. Words can be addictive, but it’s how we use them that makes or breaks the mood we strive to set for our readers’ entertainment.

My father once told me to never use a six-bit word when a two-bit word will do. Why did it take me so many years to realize the truth of this?

Hmmm, Demon killing, black ops moonlighting English Professor?  Might be a story there after all…and maybe not.