table, teapot, plates, candle

Sip, Shuffle, and Grunt: Word Choice Dilemmas

The characters in my novels are a sociable lot. They often discuss things over meals or drinks. That gives them something to do besides talk and furnishes me (the Writer) with opportunities for actions to avoid the dreaded “talking heads.”

It also brings up a few minor conundrums that are perfect examples of Writer’s Brain at Work. As I create these scenes of conviviality, I often struggle with word choices. There aren’t enough useful words for certain actions, and a bewildering abundance for others. They have to be ordinary words, not flashy ones that would draw too much attention to minor actions.

Drinking, for example. The word used to describe taking in liquid has to fit the situation and the beverage. Whether it’s water, tea, coffee, beer, wine, or spirits, the choices are pretty much limited to the following: sip, drink, or gulp (including the variations involving “take,” as in: took a sip/drink/gulp). Context determines which word is most appropriate. Extremes are easier than ordinary situations. If someone is gulping whisky or vodka, there should be a reason. A character who has reached water after a thirsty slog through a desert isn’t likely to stop at sipping. I wish there was a verb other than “drink” for situations where “sip” is too prissy and “gulp” too vulgar. Synonyms such as “imbibe” or “quaff” are pretentious and awkward. Other words, such as slurp, swig, or guzzle, are wonderful but limited.

Then there’s the problem of how to convey something we all do while talking, a nonverbal sound that indicates mild disapproval of what has just been said. It’s sometimes rendered as “Hmph.” Verbs include the following: snort, grunt, or huff. Which to use depends on the character; for some, snorting or grunting is entirely appropriate, but I can’t bring myself to apply these words to characters who simply wouldn’t do that. “Huff” is pretty much the only choice for them, along with the aforementioned “Hmph,” or “made a disapproving sound,” which is clunky. There’s also “harrumph,” but it’s another one that’s okay for an older man but not for a nice young lady or mannerly middle-aged woman. “Sniff,” on the other hand, might just work. Whichever of them is used, I suspect it should not be treated as a dialogue tag, but as a discrete action.

Along with imbibing liquids and chewing food, characters make gestures while talking. Cutlery is useful in these situations; I’ve had characters make rhetorical gestures with forks, tap spoons to emphasize a point, or even hold knives as though wanting to use them as weapons. But sometimes a person just waves a hand, and that’s where I have a problem. Should they wave a hand, or his (her) hand? The latter, as in “Bob waved his hand,” to me always sounds like Bob has only one such appendage. Okay, so how about “Bob waved his right hand”? That implies that there’s a left to go with it, but also puts unnecessary emphasis on “right.” After going around this mulberry bush a few times, I settle on “a hand,” and berate myself for overthinking. Whose hand but his own would Bob wave, after all? (I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much mental energy I’ve expended on this non-problem.)

Characters move around all the time. There are many action verbs. But sometimes, the movement from point A to point B doesn’t call for a splashy verb, such as “leap,” “saunter,” or “shuffle.” Sometimes “walk” is just fine, as in “I walked to work in the rain.” Most days, an ordinary person wouldn’t amble, strut, or stride to work. Even the modest word that is the past tense of “go,” i.e., “went,” has a place. “On Thursday, Bob went to the hospital for surgery.” An expressive word is unnecessary here, unless the way Bob got to the hospital is the point of the sentence, not the fact that he’s going to have surgery. So why make the poor guy hobble, trot, or saunter? All right, that’s enough!

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

To sum up, whatever word is chosen for an action, it should suit the situation and the character. A modest, plain word may be le mot juste, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you ever dither over word choices? Do you ever overthink them?

Featured image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

50 comments

  1. It took me months to decide between using the word broth as opposed to bouillabaisse. I went with clear broth, siding with comprehension and ease of reading/speaking.
    So, yes, I do it all the time. The right verb creates a clearer vision of the action.

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  2. What an enjoyable read! I relate to it because this, finding the RIGHT word is also the challenge for a poet. I dither, quibbke, ruminate, revise and revert, (etc!) All the time.

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  3. A very apt description! Yes, I dither and overthink, and change my mind a dozen times over word choices sometimes. I edit and change, and edit and change until the sentence/paragraph “sounds” right. But I always tend to “simple is best.”

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  4. Yes, I dither over word choices for hours on end. It’s one of those small pleasures in life! And, I would add, that the dithering invariably pays off, even if it means I go back to using the first word that came to mind.

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  5. Fun post that has generated some humorous responses. A break to review with fresh eyes is always a great idea. I disagree with your hesitation to use quaff or imbibe. Depending up on your character, these could quite appropriate. A pirate might quaff his glass of beer upon finally reaching port. A Victorian spinster might secretly imbibe her glass of sherry before receiving a lecture from her disapproving preacher.

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  6. I don’t think I do. I do go over everything I write several times and make changes, but it’s often word/phrase order rather than looking for the precise word. Which probably means I use the same old words way too often. But heck, since mine are first person stories, the story is being told by a character from within the story, I’m just transcribing it, so it’s not my fault.

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    1. True. With first person, there’s a distinctive turn of phrase that may include certain words. You have to be careful not to let them get tiresome or turn into caricature.

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  7. Hi Audrey,

    The dreaded talking heads! This is another thing I’m guilty of. When I look at my stories they seem to be a series of set pieces where characters sit down and talk – kitchen table, restaurant table, sit in the car, on a park bench. And they talk. It’s a good way of moving a story on, or filling in some gaps, but you do need those action words as well. They can even convey an undercurrent in the conversation, point to something that’s not being said but perhaps should be. And yes, there does seem to be a dearth of words for certain actions. And yes, it’s easy to overthink it and make things sound wooden, or forced with uncommon or antiquated words. I think a light brush is best, but sometimes, as I say, I’m too light on the brush and end up with talking heads.

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    1. True, but sometimes I’m suspicious of actions inserted only to avoid “talking heads.” Ideally, the actions should also show something about characters or settings. But all this is what makes writing an art.

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  8. I got some chuckles out of this one. I think I have more trouble with descriptions – repeated words, where you have to keep finding different words for the same concept (can’t find an example right now). But I do offer these lines that I used in today’s Twitter hashtag #SeduceMeSundayWrite – covers drinking as well as gestures. Remember Robbie’s brief affair with Pandora Quinn in MWFB Part Two? “There in a corner sat Pandora with a strapping young male Ensign. They were sipping fruit coolers and making eyes at each other. His left hand was twining fingers with her right, twisting all around the table.” I probably could have worked in a grunt somehow!

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  9. Shakespeare dreamed up words all the time. Why can’t we?

    Qnibble – to quietly nibble.
    Clarf – to cough into your cup, spilling liquid down your chin.
    Kipk – to pick your teeth with a sharp knife.
    Slipe – to wipe your mouth with the tablecloth.

    Maybe your characters should take up other pastimes besides eating and drinking. Darts anyone? Backgammon? Cards or tarot or dice or crosswords or braiding or flyswatting…

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    1. Making up words: Sure, except you’d need a glossary or footnotes.
      Other pastimes: Also fine, but would need to be built into the plot, and if too elaborate would be labeled as pointless distractions. Or you find a way to impart whatever is imparted by the conversations some other way, so the heads don’t have to talk. Most of those conversations over meals and drinks are there to bring characters together, to reveal stuff, or to plan. So skip all that and get to the action scene, I hear someone say (which is why I’ve said it already).
      Tarot–yes! I actually have a scene involving that in one of my books. So there.

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  10. About not overthinking in first drafts, I found this piece of advice in an article: pick up the first word that comes to your mind without stopping to look for a substitute. Later, when you revise your writing, a better word often comes naturally, or there is a chance that youโ€™ll be removing that word or sentence anyway.
    Easier said than done, though. I overthink word choices, but there is also a certain satisfaction in finding the right word. It is a good mental/linguistic exercise, even if you end up not using that word in the final draft.

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  11. You nailed one of my troublesome ones with “walk.” I wish there were more choices. If characters are striding and strutting all the time, it becomes almost cartoonish. The same with the use of repeated body language. How many times can one whip their head? ๐Ÿคฃ

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    1. I remind myself that ordinary readers aren’t as likely to notice repetitions of ordinary words as those who read lots of submissions. Those folks are hyper-aware of stuff like that. “Walk” is a perfectly good word (sort of like “drink,” I suppose). We can save the strutting and gulping for places where those kinds of words are needed. The trick is to match the word to the situation.

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  12. I love this post. I am constantly looking up synonyms these days. It’s good to know someone else is too. Perhaps it’s a pitfall of this second edit process – I didn’t check words so much when I was writing the first draft. Maybe it is a bit of overthinking or even sometimes (for me anyway – a kind of procrastination) but when the right word presents itself the story does get a bit of lift. I hadn’t thought of breaking meal time conversations with actions. Maybe I should. I’ll consider it when I figure out a better way to describe one character who knows the way leading another character who doesn’t. I can’t find many synonyms for lead or following

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    1. Yes, it’s in that polishing stage that I fret about word choices. Adding actions to dialogue is considered helpful to avoid monotony and to provide context.
      I imagine a thesaurus would have synonyms for following and leading, but what you end up with depends on the exact situation. That’s the trouble with synonym lists; you have to consider the nuances.

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  13. A timely and well constructed reminder Audrey. I did enjoy the journey through the jungle of verbs.
    Next book I must make sure to avoid too much ‘smiling’….Saying Brandon Sanderson got away with it in ‘Mistborn’ with one guy being prone to chuckling just is not going to ‘cut it’

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    1. I have never used “chuckle” in anything I’ve written, mostly because I really don’t know what it means. Smiling is fine as long as it isn’t used as a dialogue tag, as in “I’m feeling great,” Bob smiled. A period after “great” is the fix.

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  14. Oh god yes!!!!! I recently read a YA fantasy – not my normal fair but hey, there were dragons. Anyway, the three young protagonists ‘smirked’ on average once a paragraph. I’ve come to loathe that word.
    And thank you for saying ‘go’ and ‘went’ and a host of other, unassuming verbs are perfectly ok to use. No one’s going to die of shock if a character smiles, but a smirk could well send them into a frothing frenzy. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    1. Uh-oh. I think there’s some smirking in my WIP. I’ll have to make sure it’s the best word in each case. ๐Ÿ˜‰
      I know what you mean. I read a book recently in which “murmur” was used way too often.

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      1. -grin- one or two well placed smirks is fine, Audrey, and knowing you, they will be well placed. Seriously, in the book I read there must have been HUNDREDS of the little bastards.
        Murmur is another lovely word, but all things in moderation. ๐Ÿ˜€

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  15. These days I rarely drink so I ask my husband for a ‘splash’ of wine. Doubt it would ever become a typical word for drinking but it definitely describes the tasting of wine in a fun way.

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