Elements of Style: Lexis

What is Lexis, you might ask?

Taken from Dictionary.com, Lexis:

Noun, Linguistics:

1.       The vocabulary of a language, as distinct from its grammar, the total stock of words and idiomatic combination of then in a language; lexicon.

For the sake of this article, I will be using words without their context to create an idea – in other words, not how it’s said, but the fact that certain words are utilized within a segment of text, and the ideas it can generate. Context is incredibly important in your writing – I am not trying to downplay it whatsoever. However, if the words are broken down and categorized, they form certain ideas depending on what the reader is familiar with. Some words are filler (usually ‘said’, ‘the’, ‘an’, many more) but if I give you a word, you form an impression of it in your mind. “Boy” – without any descriptors, you have already assigned an age, and what a little boy would be wearing. If I tell you “not to think about a Boy” it has the opposite effect – you still imagine a boy; whether it be a child you know or a fictional character. Boy is a loaded word because it really depends on who is saying what – a little baby boy is different then a gruff soldier calling a barely-man recruit a boy, but the word boy is applicable in both examples.

How we break this up for stylistics is to take a segment of text for analysis and take each and every individual word and categorize them.  For the sake of analysis, here’s a short segment from Tower of Obsidian:

You know how the tale is supposed to go. The maiden is seized, captured by some foul villain. The hero gives chase, defeats the villain, and rescues her. The maid and hero wed and live happily ever after. 

But suppose it doesn’t go like that. No doubt there have been countless stories of maidens taken by villains. Some are rescued, others are killed, and however tragic their stories, they are ended.

What if one of these maidens lingered in darkness, with puzzles unsolved, her dragons unslain? 

She was stolen, like so many before her and many who came after. Was she a goddess, a nymph, or a common girl of great beauty? It matters little. He seized her and forced her into a dark tower, which even the gods could not destroy. Oh how they tried, sending their sons to battle him. All failed. 

The wicked sorcerer enticed her, tried to trick and confuse her, but she would never submit. In rage, or perhaps when it seemed the tide was turning, and perhaps her true love finally came, the sorcerer, rather than lose her, cursed her. He locked her in a prison, and she and the tower became one.

If you were to do a full analysis, you might have slightly different categories, and you’ll start to notice that some words would belong in numerous categories. Here’s what I did quickly:

Mythology: Dragons, Goddess, Nymph, Sorcerer (2), Gods       

Character Roles: Maiden, Hero (2), Villain, Dragons, Girl, Sons             

Violence:  Seized, Unslain, Forced, Killed, Rage, Locked, Cused, Captured, Destroy             

Buildings: Tower, Prison            

Darkness: Dark, Darkness

If I had a little larger chunk of text, I might have used other heading categories (Words like Black, Obsidian, shadow, etc., might change the darkness category) and then I might have subcategories for the more specific words when I notice that the categories become too long.

Words, by themselves, start to create their own ideas. There is no context in this method of categorizing – and it’s an incomplete list, but you begin to see how the words form an impression – even though this isn’t a fight sequence, it still portrays action, to the point of violence – I might be encouraged to create another ‘Captured’ heading, have words like Prison, Captured, Locked, ect., but I’ll bore most of you if I were to do a full analysis. Incidentally, I did this years ago when the novel was still in draft form, you can check out this website to make your own:

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Okay – so that’s all well and good, but how does this serve for writing?

By making choices in your language, you can change how your readers read your work. You have millions of words at your disposal – especially if you start to incorporate other languages in your writing. By limiting you characters to predetermined language, you can get across the idea of something without explicitly saying it.

For example, I enjoy historical movies, and up until recently, Roman characters in fiml generally had inexplicable British accents. In the movie Gladiator, Russell Crowe’s character speaks elegantly, but not like how we might expect – saying things like, “Strength and Honor” throughout the movie – because he wanted to sound authentic not only for that time period, but for the intended movie audience. There is no, “Good luck!” or “Good-Bye!”, that expression highlighted not only what characters in that time thought were important, but also the specific character of Maximus, who says it throughout the film. That isn’t to say that the film was wholly accurate (we as a general audience would have a very hard time understanding it as we don’t understand day-to-day Roman lifestyle) but it was able to utilize the language we would understand in the context that the Romans would use it. Thus, we have a more formal, different sounding use of language rather than it sounding like contemporary people stuck in timepiece costume.

This extends to further than dialogue. Let’s look at description – let’s pretend we want to incorporate different ideas on the same character: let’s take a tall woman, with grey eyes and sharp features. I’ll describe her using different words:

She stood tall, to past Tikal’s shoulder, her steel-colored eyes frozen on the book ahead of her. Her pale skin flushed at her cheeks, her sharp nose scrunching in disdain as the men bickered around her. She shook her head, causing her hair to shield her expression.

 Steel. Frozen. Pale. Flushed. Sharp. Shield. These are not exactly friendly words.

The woman stood to above Tikal’s shoulder. She locked her sea-grey eyes on the book before her. As the bickering continued, she shook her head, causing her wavy hair to obscure the rising pink in her pale cheeks. She scrunched her nose in disdain.

I utilized the words ‘sea-grey’ and ‘wavy’ – we’re getting an idea of water – but I also used the words ‘above’ and ‘rising’ – I’m giving the idea that perhaps, this woman is either above her contemporaries or is looking down. I have to be careful not to go nuts; at some point, I’m hitting the reader over the head to reinforce an idea, and odds are, they won’t appreciate that. Still, a tall woman with pale skin and grey eyes, sharp features, and she’s pretty much doing the same thing in each paragraph. I would argue that the woman in the first paragraph sounds more dangerous, whereas the woman in the second one seems to portray more of an air of aloofness and mystery.

There’s more to using words than just picking up a thesaurus. You can use words that have different contexts, but the use of the ideas plants an idea in the reader’s mind. Because we all come with previous associations of a word (however, this might not always be the case in speculative fiction where we are often introduced to new ideas and creatures) it is important to consider individual word choices, both in context and out of context, to see what kind of idea the words generate.  When you’re applying this to your own writing, don’t worry about a single word being taken out of context – however, look and see if there is a pattern for an idea you intended, or didn’t intend. You don’t have to utilize lexis for every aspect of your book, but if you consider your word choice, you might be able to strengthen your ideas.

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