Powerful words that pack a punch can make for highly evocative writing… but there’s something you should watch out for if you want to hit the right notes.
It’s common knowledge among writers that replacing adverbs with stronger verbs creates cleaner, more stimulating writing. But the war against adverbs isn’t the only place in which the battle for impact rages. When you’re talking impact, you’re often talking about the wider world of power words.
Power words are not just for marketing
So what exactly are power words? Quite simply, they’re words that are known to have an automatic impact on the human mind. This could be down to onomatopoeia, the forceful or strange nature of a word’s pronunciation, or simply the natural imagery a word conjures.
Power words come in all shapes and sizes. They can be nouns (such as cruelty), verbs (like annihilate), adjectives (silky) or even adverbs (eagerly). Other examples include:
Power words are well-known and spoken of in marketing circles because they tend to make us sit up and pay attention. Advertisers use them constantly (keep an eye out for the next thousand times you see the word “discover” in an ad).
When it comes to writing fiction, however, authors generally see power words as an option for greater clarity of meaning, especially in descriptive prose. They’re a useful way of condensing concepts and feelings into a single word.
Yet the true extent of their utility for the fiction writer lies beyond expressive description.
The problem with power words
Before we get to that hidden influence, though, let’s take a brief look at the problem with power words. Just like with similes and metaphors, the overuse of power words can very quickly become a visible crutch in your writing.
Using power words too often can make your writing feel overblown, hackneyed, and clichéd — so they’re best applied when and where they stand to make the biggest impact on your reader.
Throw one or two into every other sentence and your prose may start to turn purple. That’s something readers can pick up on very quickly indeed, and it generally isn’t good. (It can, however, be an effective technique for an absurdist or comedic narrative, if that’s what you’re aiming for.)
But, if you want to call out a character’s reaction, a shocking event, or even something like a physical wound as being particularly important or devastating, then power words are a valuable tool.
With that said, let’s take a look at the hidden side of power words you may not have at the top of your mind while pounding on the keyboard: the tonal influence their emotional punch embeds in your writing.
Getting the reaction you want
The tonal influence of power words is a subtle one, which makes it both a blessing and a curse for the creative writer.
When thinking purely in terms of descriptive writing, one power word is as good as another if it feels weighty and affecting, right?
Not quite — because different words have the ability to set off different emotional triggers, even if they’re basically describing the same kind of thing.
A simple example of this is the difference between these two sentences:
“He writhed in agony.”
“He was delirious with pain.”
The first sentence contains two power words: “writhed” and “agony.” Both of these words lie on a spectrum of fear and disgust – they make us feel uncomfortable when reading them.
On the other hand, while “delirious with pain” gives us the same core information about the subject of the sentence, the emotive and tonal impact doesn’t match up to the first example. The word delirious falls more into the chaotic/energetic emotional segment, so while we certainly have sympathy for the poor character enduring this, subconsciously, we aren’t in the same place.
A single word can make the difference between triggering a fearful reaction in your reader’s subconscious or wrapping them up in an aura of chaotic energy.
The difference can be minute and subtle and difficult to get to get a grip on, but one way to make it easier is to constantly be aware of how you want your reader to feel when they’re making their way through certain sections of your story and your story as a whole.
Before you start writing, try pinning up a few sticky notes around your workspace to help keep you on track. Note the two biggest emotions you want readers to experience throughout your tale. Is it a horror story aiming at relentless fear or terror? Do you want readers to experience feelings of romance or lust? How do you want them to come away feeling about your story as a whole when they’ve reached the end?
Think holistically, rather than that final parting emotion as they finish the last chapter.
If you’re a dedicated planner, you could go as far as to mark out the emotional map of your chapters too – giving yourself a dedicated bucket of possible power words that you can reach into throughout each section without accidentally drifting out of the overall spectrum you’re trying to hit.
A feel-good ending, for example, carries its own sentimental tags – but with careful handling, it won’t erase the memory of the emotions that came before.
A proficient book editing app like AutoCrit can quickly reveal how you’ve used power words throughout your manuscript, even going so far as to break these down into categories based on their emotional triggers. Categories of this type in AutoCrit, for example, include:
- The Forbidden/Mysterious
Here’s an example of a manuscript breakdown in AutoCrit:
As you might guess, given the spread of the emotional landscape, the manuscript here is laden with fear, lust, aggression, and a sense of encouragement or achievement (as you might expect if you’ve ever read Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice).
Finally, remember: your story is a journey, not just descriptively, but emotionally, for your reader. The layers are multiple and harnessing the hidden influence of power words can help turn a riveting read into an unforgettable experience.
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