Crafting Emotional Resonance: Part 4 – Precise Prose

Today marks the end of this series on writing emotionally resonant scenes and stories! There will be one more related post in a few weeks that covers writing effective dialogue—plus a critique post next week that provides insight into how all of these tips can be applied—but this will be the last how-to post that’s officially part of the series. Today I want to talk about how your prose can make or break the tone and emotion of your writing.

I’ve talked about why I love classic literature before, and one of the reasons is that classic authors took word choice very seriously. They made a point to choose exactly the right words to convey their meaning, connect to their themes, and highlight the emotion they wanted to resonate with readers. Mark Twain said well that,

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

As authors, we know that words have power. This is certainly as true on the micro level as it is true of story as a whole! Yet our specific word choice within stories, within scenes, within sentences is often less careful than it could be, and our stories—and their impact on readers, by extension—suffer for it.

The question is: How do we fix it?

Words that Reflect Character

This first point goes back to the first topic in this series: character voice. The way your character thinks and speaks should impact the word choice and emphasis of your scenes. Think about where and how your character grew up, what sort of education they had, what they do or don’t read (or if they read at all), what sorts of people they surround themselves with. Maybe they talk in street slang, or know obscure technical terms when it comes to woodcarving, or they speak with an archaic (but beautiful) vocabulary because all they read is old literature.

Let’s imagine a scene from two different perspectives. Say, a bustling seaport from the POV of a sailing merchant and the POV of a noble scholar.

The thunder of chatter and horse hooves scraped against my ears like a knife against a barnacle soon as the tide carried us into port. I’d rather hear real thunder, omen of choppy seas as it was, than this racket. Almost drowned out the pulse of the waves against creaking wood, it did. Never could find peace with city noises and motionless ground beneath my feet as I could with the heartbeat of the sea beneath my boots and nothin’ but blue far as the eye can see. So, naturally, I stayed aboard and let my boys take care of any land-bound transactions, while the real important folk offered their chips in the comfort of my Isabel‘s hospitality.


I closed my eyes and breathed deeply of briny air, savoring the scent of reality. The smell of books was as sweet, but one needed to get back in touch with the corporeal every once in a while, to let their fingers graze adventure in the real world. The port carried the biggest lure of exploration outside of the library—at least as I perceived it—always bustling with exotic travelers, the curious (like myself), and the grandest ships this side of the Brene. Today I was reading the ships like spines in a library, my perusal ending when I found what I’d been seeking: Isabel. She was beautiful, lovingly maintained, a stunning specimen of the sloop family… or was she a ketch? For all my love of ships and all my study, I never could remember which were which. My mind had always preserved knowledge of the living beasts of the sea far better.

I’ll stop there, before I get too carried away. These are, of course, just chunks of description. And they have their weaknesses (for example, not utilizing all five senses, lacking in specific detail and direct interaction, lacking movement, and generally infodumping a bit). But hopefully they convey the point of word choice (as well as sentence structure and grammar) differing from character to character—and communicating the emotion and background of a character.

The sailor uses analogies and terms that he’s familiar with as a sailor (scraping barnacles, the “omen” of thunder) or that reflect the way he perceives things like the sea (describing the waves as a “heartbeat,” thinking of money like gaming chips), and his wording and sentence structure is overall less polished.

The scholar’s paragraph reflects his philosophy, uses a more advanced vocabulary (“savoring,” “corporeal,” “perusal”), uses analogies he would be familiar with (“reading the ships like spines in a library”), and conveys the knowledge he’s gained as a scholar. The way he describes the ship as a “specimen” and talks about his knowledge being “preserved” hints at his emphasis on biology.

Obviously much more time could be dedicated to this practice than I can put into a couple of paragraphs concocted for a blog post, but hopefully this provides a helpful example as you begin to practice and to edit your work.

Words that Reflect Tone

In the paragraphs I wrote for the previous point, the tone is rather neutral. There are hints of excitement in the scholar’s description, perhaps some arrogance and certainly a bit of annoyance in the sailor’s. But you wouldn’t be able to expect too much of the tone of a story if you were to simply read those paragraphs—and setting a tone wasn’t their purpose.

However, when you are working to set the tone for a story, specific word choice is a great way to do this. Check out this line, for example:

Darkness descended on the city. The sparkling lights of the towers tried to resist, but still it pressed down, as thick and vile as the blood coating Vix’s knife.

Reading this line provides a very strong idea of the type of story you’re getting into, right? It’s definitely going to be dark (that’s foreshadowed—no pun intended—at the very first word), there’s likely to be a lot of conflict (“descended on,” as in an attack, and the towers “trying to resist,” bloody knife aside), and that darkness and violence are equated with the comparison between the darkness and the blood on the knife.

You can set a lot of expectations for a story or a scene simply by using the right words. Likewise, you can set the wrong expectations by using the wrong words. If you were to weaken the above line, you might fail to set the proper tone, like so:

Darkness fell over the city. The sparkling lights of the towers pushed back, but still it lingered, persistent as the blood dripping from Vix’s knife.

Now, this line isn’t necessarily bad. Could it be stronger? Yes. Does it set clear expectations? Yes. Are the expectations the same as in the first iteration? No.

This second version doesn’t provide the same oppressive tone, instead painting the light as more successful (“pushing back” the darkness) and the darkness as something hiding on the edges (“lingering”), a mere shadow rather than a blanket, and there might almost be a fear or desperation implied in the “persistent dripping” of the blood from the knife. It’s less sinister, feeling more like a looming threat being foreshadowed than an immediate danger.

As you can see, the same scene can be written in different ways to convey a different tone, so if your scene doesn’t yet carry the tone you want it to, play around with the wording! Just a change in how you describe the exact same imagery can make a huge difference and take your scene from ineffective to effective, or simply from the wrong effect to the intended effect.

Words that Support Theme

Beyond establishing character and setting the tone, your word choice can also support the entire theme under-girding your story. To recycle the previous examples, you might find a theme of nature as something spiritual in the sailor’s description (thunder as an omen, the tide as a heartbeat), or the theme of incorporeal wisdom needing corporeal application in the scholar’s. In the knife line, you might find the equation of violence and darkness or the inability to completely snuff out light in the first version, the ultimate weakness of darkness against light or the persistence of darkness and sin in the second version.

If you’re already finding themes underlying your description, the question becomes whether or not that’s the theme you’re trying to communicate. If it’s not, is it one you would like to build on and make intentional or is it something you’d rather not be communicating at all? (For example, I think the theme I pulled out in the sailor’s description is a little weird; if I were editing a story where that scene actually featured, I’d be thinking about whether it can be changed or whether that’s a theme that needs to be contended elsewhere in the story.)

If you’re writing or editing a story that doesn’t yet have thematic prose, you’ve got a great starting point from which to practice and experiment. Think about the theme you want and brainstorm ways to reinforce that with word choice. What words or phrases would support a theme of faithfulness? Or unconditional love? Or storytelling as a weapon? Or whatever it is you’re writing about?

Tips for Stronger Prose

Now you know what strong prose can do. The question remains: How do you get there? How do you refine your prose so that it has these effects on your reader—even if they likely won’t notice it consciously?

  • Read classics. Seriously, the prose is amazing. Some particular favorites of mine would be Tolkien, Lewis (especially the Space trilogy and his nonfiction), George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde (though his themes require caution), and Mark Twain (whose nonfiction is also excellent for its word choice).
  • Read poetry. Poetry thrives on specific word choice. Longfellow is one of my favorites for the way he paints such vivid scenes with his words; definitely one I’d recommend for authors of prose!
  • Write poetry. This is great practice for choosing your words carefully, which you can then carry over into your prose writing.
  • Copy and analyze passages that use words well. The act of copying a passage gives you a different perspective on it and helps you practice creating those words yourself. It also helps you think through why and how those pieces work, which you can take and apply to your own original work.

I’ll warn you ahead of time: a lot of your readers won’t consciously appreciate the depth of your prose. But they’ll feel its impact and sense that you’ve written a stronger story than has become the mainstream norm, all the same. Your prose has amazing potential to make or break your story; it is absolutely worthwhile to practice and polish for the sake of your story and your readers—even the readers who don’t understand its power.

Looking to polish your prose with some help? Check out my line editing services!

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Comment below and let’s talk! Which of these points was most interesting to you? Which example helped the most? Which part of this series has been the biggest help to you? I’d love to hear from you!

If you’d like to see how these points would impact your story, submit a snippet to be critiqued next week! I’ll be demonstrating how to apply these points to your own work, as well as giving a sneak peek into my process as a line editor!

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