Books are made up of words. That may sound self-evident, but it’s a deeper thought than you’re thinking it is. If you’re going to write books, you should use words like a good filmmaker uses a camera, music, and actors. Not just to tell a story, but to write.
This is where that old maxim “Show, don’t tell” comes from. It’s actually very hard to pin down what’s meant by that rule. It’s one way we say, “Look, don’t just tell us what happens to what characters. Don’t just tell us a story. Write us one.”
Words are capable of so much. They make poetry. They create sensation in an almost mystical way; they engage our imaginations. They sweep us into their rhythms, their subtext, their subtle beauty or harshness. They create emotion. They enable the craft of POV. If you really use them.
When I was cleaning out my books recently, I debated whether to get rid of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree. I had decided that I want the omnibus edition with all three books in the Fionavar Tapestry, so there wasn’t much point in keeping a used paperback copy of just one. But I pulled it off the shelf and flipped through it, and I could not get rid of it. You know why? Not because of the story. Because of the words. Because if I ever want a book to sing me to sleep one of these nights, it might just be that one.
(I was being figurative in that last sentence. The truth is, when I first read the aforementioned omnibus edition, which I’d gotten from the library, it kept me all night until sunrise. The words sing; so does the story; but they sing one incredibly riveting song.)
Last night I curled up on the couch with a couple of my cousins and read aloud from A.A. Milne’s old poetry books, Now We Are Six and When We Were Very Young. The poems make such wonderful use of words. Milne had that distinctly British command of the language that I fear is no longer easily found.
By contrast, I recently read a book for review (and I shall leave it nameless, for now), and while the story was fine and good, I wished it hadn’t been in a book. It would have been so much better told in pictures–moving ones, or perhaps in a comic book. The problem was, the author stuffed all these words between the pages, but she really didn’t use them. She kept everything on the surface and didn’t tap into the latent power and beauty of language at all.
End of rant. For their command of language, three of my favourite Christian spec-fic authors of the day are Jeffrey Overstreet, George Bryan Polivka, and Marc Schooley. Check them out if you haven’t yet. They are worth reading–every word.