Tag Archives: Style

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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Elements of Style: Utilizing Sound and Pacing

Phonics is a huge topic, in which I can’t possibly address everything – this post is about using sound in your prose to shape a desired effect.

Certain sounds have characteristics of sounding pleasant or rough to our ears. There’s a reason certain languages sound so nice and others sound very rough to an English audience  – often times, in speculative fiction, we’re creating languages or names, so you can utilize sound to help you shape a character or place. A character named Kreb sounds rougher then another named Suth. Utilizing monosyllables also creates that choppy effect – Tukekib still sounds a little softer than Bob, but I’ll discuss rhythm further below.

Generally speaking, these letters make the roughest sounds: B, D, T, G, K, but sometimes it depends on the speaker’s accent and how it’s paired. Sometimes, R’s can sound rough. Softer sounds are more like CH, S, TH, F, QU; but once again, it depends on what it’s in conjunction with. Generally speaking, your vowels are neutral, but if your made-up word sound very similar to a word readers are familiar with, it might deter both how they would sound it out, and the lexical implications.

Now, that’s all well and good while you’re naming characters or locations, but how does this help during regular prose? Let’s consider the same sentence, I’ll rewrite it several times, and we’ll focus on sound.

Bob walked to the store to buy milk.

Now, let’s focus on soft sounds:

Bob slinked silently to the store to purchase milk.

Now, let’s look at hard sounds:

Bob trudged to K-Mart to buy milk.

You may say that there is hardly any difference – or perhaps you don’t want him at the Kmart, he needs to go to the 7/11 for plot purposes, and he’s neither trudging nor slinking. That’s okay – most of the time, you don’t have to utilize sound unless it’s intentional – however, if you’re not getting the feeling you want for a scene, consider the use of sound. Are your sentences short and choppy, or long and flowing? Even though most people won’t be reading your book aloud (unless you write children’s books) we still internalize the sound. Consider this piece of dialogue:

The princess snapped, “I’ll never marry you!”

Very cliché. Let’s compare:

The princess snapped, “I’d sooner bed a dog!” Different then, “I oppose this union with every fiber of my being!” In all these examples, she’s against the idea of marriage – but we incorporate different ideas, and, different sounds associated. Let’s look at the former rewrite – let’s say we’re in a world where we don’t want to imply bestiality, but we still want to make this sound rough, but we’ve already established that the princess likes the sound of her own voice. Let’s have the princess say, “You dare try to force me to wed you? You are not worthy to tie the sandals on my feet. My brothers shall rescue me, and you shall be torn limb from limb.” Without analyzing every sound there, it sounds a lot harsher than, “I’ll never marry you!” And not just from the threat of violence – Consider: “you Dare Try To force me to weD you.” The harsh sounds come out first, the part where she’s promising dismemberment comes after, and is actually the soft sounding part of the dialogue. Of course, it would sound ridiculous if she is only using soft-sounding words or hard-sounding words, but you can consider how key dialogue sounds if there are multiple choices for delivery.

Sentence Length and Pacing

Generally speaking in prose, the more complicated the action scenes, the shorter your sentences become – if Sir Galahad is scaling the dragon to the weak spot to give the death blow, it’s easier to give an account of him doing each action – especially if this dragon is flailing around and trying to squish him.

Example:

Sir Galahad leapt to the tail of the blue dragon. He gripped hard to the scale to keep from being thrown. The dragon roared. It began to run. Galahad pulled himself up towards the dragon’s flank, looking for the light patch. Weakness.

That reads quicker than:

Sir Galahad gracefully bounded on to the flickering tail of the great blue dragon; whereupon he clasped a glistening blue scale with his steel gauntlet, and pulled himself upon the great thundering beast. The dragon let loose a terrific roar, and began to run, hindering Galahad’s sojourn to the light patch of scales on his right buttocks, where Merlin said the weakness would be.

 This shorter, choppier segment allows your reader to increase the pacing of a sequence. Conversely – things such as inactive description and telling things in the passive voice tends to slow your pacing down – this is useful; for while it’s not necessary to always use the active voice, occasionally slipping into the passive allows you to slow down and take a breather in your book. While most advice is ‘don’t bore your reader’ your reader doesn’t need to be riding the dragon the entire novel, either. You can have areas of relative slowness so that you can pick up the pace for the action sequences.

Using polysyllables can also be helpful for name and word creation – as said before, using sounds to make things longer makes them seem more formal, and this is true with character and location names as well.

Unless you’re using poetry or telling a very stylized form of story, you probably won’t be utilizing sound the entire way through your manuscript, but understanding some aspects of sound might help you make decisions in forming your prose.

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