Words That Punch Above Their Weight

If I had to pick a favourite word, it would have to be whoops. It’s so universal, so expressive and everyone can read whatever they imagine into that one word. It’s a word that punches above its weight.

I first noticed the power of whoops when it made newspaper headlines in 2000, the year Sydney hosted the Olympics. Early that year, during the selection trials for the Australian swimming team, the unthinkable happened. In the 800m freestyle, Australia’s swimming hero Ian Thorpe made a disastrous break before the starter gun and was disqualified. He was world champion for the 800m and had won gold for that event in the previous Olympics. So the photograph of him tumbling towards the water as his feet left the blocks made the front page of every newspaper in the country. In one national newspaper, beneath that photograph was a one-word headline: Whoops! Most people still easily recall seeing that photograph with its single word in large print, even though more than a decade has passed since.

Whoops! meant so many things in the minds of Australians who saw it. It said: well, we didn’t see that coming or perhaps oh dear, there goes gold for Australia or even never mind, Ian, we all make mistakes. It might also have expressed what was going through Ian Thorpe’s mind at the time, like: what was I thinking? or please don’t let this count against me.

Whoops! said it all and more.

When I’m writing, I constantly search for words that punch above their weight, words that have more than one meaning or words that imply something deeper. Even when I’m not writing, I take note of interesting or powerful words I read or hear. Not big words because I’m not a fan of big words, just simple words that work really well for the space they take up.

One of my stories is called Xiao’s Patch and I chose the word patch because it has multiple layers of meaning. The story is about a homeless man, so the word patch refers to the small stretch of street where he lives. Patch also means a scrap of something or something to cover up a hole or something make-do, all of which convey a sense of poverty. Patch is also used in a competitive sense, as in your patch versus my patch. As events unfold, Xiao’s spot comes under threat from another homeless man whose size and belligerence are more than Xiao can face. I could have called the story Xiao’s Home or Xiao’s Street or Xiao’s Struggle but none of those words pack as much punch as the word patch.

Many writers settle for too little when choosing words. There’s an old adage: “Don’t say a bird, say a robin.” I think it’s better to paint a bigger, more detailed picture in the reader’s mind by being specific rather than generic.

So instead of using the word shoes, try  joggers, brogues, sneakers, stilettos or Nikes and let the shoes reveal something about the character. If you write he looked down at his shoes it just conveys a simple action, but if you write he looked down at his sneakers it conveys something about the character along with the action.

Verbs are often neglected when it comes to finding something with more punch. Instead of using the word put, try slipped, eased, shoved, crammed. If you write she put the letter in her pocket it’s just another simple action, but if you write she shoved the letter in her pocket there’s an added layer of meaning about how she feels about the letter.

Any added meaning within a single word is very satisfying to the reader because it enlarges the picture in the reader’s mind and it often raises questions for the reader to mull over.

One author who does this to an amazing degree is Tim Winton. He rarely uses complex words, instead he finds simple words that punch way above their weight. In one of his short stories in The Turning, he has a scene in which two brothers are surfing when a shark moves in. One of the brothers is taken by the shark and his surfboard tombstones out of the water. That word tombstones creates a very accurate picture of what a board looks like when it’s upended and shoots up out of the water, minus the surfer. On top of that, the use of tombstones conveys a sense of death without having to spell out the possibility the surfer might die. The whole story has an underlying theme of death, so it’s even more powerful in reiterating the idea behind the story. One word, many layers. Bravo Tim Winton!

When I find a word that punches above its weight, I use it sparingly. In my story Xiao’s Patch, the word patch only appears in the title and twice in the text. That’s because a powerful word sticks in the reader’s mind and any overuse would reduce its effectiveness. It’s like a little splash of red that catches your eye in a painting full of yellows and blues. It’s the little that stands out a lot. Too many red splashes and the effect is ruined.

Some words become overused, especially in the media, and begin to punch well below their weight. I avoid those. I won’t use delicious unless it has something to do with eating and I won’t call anything sexy if it doesn’t have genitals. And I definitely don’t describe a raft of anything unless it’s floating on water. When a word is overused, it loses its power and only serves as padding in the story. That’s just irritating for the reader.

I’m forever jotting down words that catch my ear or eye. I might not use them straight away but I like to collect simple words that punch above their weight. I like to let them float around in my head, waiting for the right spot in a story where they will sit comfortably, more than earning their worth.

Lean on Me

Starting a story is something I’ve never found hard. It’s finishing that trips me up and I’ve probably got about fifty stories with little more than a promising paragraph or some interesting opening sentences, all lying dead in the water. Sometimes I bring one up on my screen and try a bit of resuscitation. Occasionally, I can get my head back to the character and capture the emotion or the intention of those opening sentences and the story starts to breathe again. But more often than not I just can’t re-open that particular door in my imagination and I can’t step back into the place where that story started in my head.

The reasons I let the initial inspiration slip are probably the same for all writers. Sometimes good reasons interrupt the flow of writing a story, like family. My husband, my children, my grandchildren – they’re something that will always come first for me. Not to mention my brother-who-lives-too-far-away – hi Mick if you’re reading this! And my friends, of course. But, more often than not, my reasons for not persisting with a story are lame and I know I’m just trying to avoid the hard work of seeing the thing through to the end. I’ve never met a writer yet who wasn’t an expert in procrastination.

So my attention was caught a while back when I read a suggestion in an article on writing and inspiration. Essentially, it suggested a slower, sneakier approach to getting the story moving along. Once a character walks across your mind, once you’ve got some idea of what that character is doing and some inkling of their personality, write down what you’ve got and don’t feel as if you have to push it any further. Instead, walk away from your computer and lean subconsciously on that character as you go about all the other activities in your day. Don’t leave the character behind when you walk away from your computer, take him with you and lean on him while you’re doing the supermarket shopping, hanging out the washing, weeding the garden, cooking dinner. Instead of allocating all your imagining time to when your fingers are on the keyboard, let the character walk around in your head and nudge him a little to find out more about him and what he might do. During that time, don’t let any other stories intrude. Be faithful to the one character and live with him a little.

At some point, you have to sit down and get the story on the page but I’ve found it a lot less stressful to allow myself to walk away from those unfinished opening paragraphs, as long as I take my character with me and subconsciously lean on him throughout the day. It’s quite amazing how some stories take shape away from the computer. And what’s even more amazing is how inclined I become to procrastinate on all those mundane tasks so I can get back to the computer and finish the story.