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.

How’s the weather?

Cloudy with a chance of rain. Or maybe sunny with a cool change later in the day. Have I raised your curiosity yet? No, didn’t think so. In fact, I’m getting a bit bored myself.

Just goes to show there’s some wisdom in the advice not to start a story with the weather. The only reason everyone talks about the weather is because they haven’t got much else to say. There’s just no curiosity value in weather, nothing to tease the reader to keep on reading.

            Unless the weather is really dramatic, like “the twister dodged back and forth across the horizon, edging nearer every second”. There’s a hint of imminent danger there, something that makes it worth reading on, to find out what happens next.

            Or unless a character is being affected by the weather in a way that moves the story forward, like “a sudden gust of wind whipped the letter out of her hand and into the fast-flowing river”. The weather has sent the story off in a new direction and the reader is led down the path of “what now?”

Or unless it increases the stakes for a character, like “as the icy downpour filled his shoes and soaked his socks, he realised he was hopelessly lost”. For the reader, the weather has raised sympathy for the character and a curiosity about how he will manage to extricate himself from the situation.

            Sometimes the weather is really useful in writing. It can enhance the drama of a scene or interact with characters in a way that moves the story in a new and interesting direction. On its own, though, a description of the weather can stall a story and lose the reader’s attention. Especially when it’s used as an opener.

            Having said that, I have to admit one of my favourite books of all time, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, commits the entire first chapter to the weather. It’s a short chapter admittedly, but the main character Tom Joad doesn’t even appear until the second chapter. The only characters in the first chapter are anonymous men and women huddling on farms that are being destroyed by the relentless drought. Even then, the people appear as small powerless creatures in the face of the overwhelming force of nature.

But I don’t think Steinbeck was simply unaware of the warning not to begin a story with the weather. In The Grapes of Wrath the weather is not just part of the background, it’s a vital character in the story. It’s the main antagonist that raises the conflict for Tom Joad and his family, and all the other “Okies” that are forced off their farms and onto the road to seek out a way to survive. That first chapter is a brave piece of writing, I think. Starting a story with the weather and pulling it off so successfully is astounding. If you haven’t read it for a while, it’s worth taking another look.   

So, the moral of this tale is: if you’re not John Steinbeck, I reckon it’s worth rationing out the weather in your writing. Or, if in doubt about its usefulness to the story, leave it out altogether.