The Skill List Project: Diction

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I said that this month we’ll look at diction and I pointed you toward the Wikipedia article as a starting point. So let’s do it.

Words, Words, Words

“Kill the bastard!”

“Slay the villain!”

“Murder the bum!”

These three examples convey the same sentiment, but each has a different flavor and each only fits in certain types of books.

“Slay the villain!” only works in a setting where people use words like “slay” and “villain”. The phrase might be used in high fantasy but not in down-and-dirty modernday. Calling someone a villain suggests a culture with a certain type of morality—one that believes (or pretends to believe) that clear-cut villains exist and that slaying is an appropriate thing to do to them.

“Murder the bum!” is the sort of thing you might hear in the 1930′s and from people who have a 1930′s feel to them. Ben Grimm might have said it all the way up to the 1980′s but probably not today; Tony Soprano might well use the phrase today because he’s meant to feel like a throwback to the old mobster days (and indeed, he consciously or unconsciously has fashioned his persona on being like the old mobsters).

“Kill the bastard!” is a more contemporary choice of words. You might hear it in the mouth of many a modern character (at least one living in a Westernized culture…non-Western characters may talk differently). But you might also see the phrase in a book dealing with a very different place and time. For example, a story may feature swords and magic and dragons, but still use modern English language and idioms as a way of establishing an ambiance of “These characters are pretty much like you and me.”


“Ambiance” is the whole point of diction: the words you choose and the way you put them together set the tone of a story. The literal meaning of your words and sentences is only a small part of what they communicate to the reader. Their connotations, associations and “color” strongly influence how readers relate to your story and your characters.

Lofty language gives the feel of lofty characters. If a character sounds like Hamlet, we’ll relate to him and his world in a very different way than if he sounds like Sam Jackson in Snakes on a Plane.

Everyday language gives the feel of everyday characters. In books these days, everyday language is more common than lofty, even when stories take place in settings very different from our modern world. As I’ve already mentioned, lots of books include swords, magic, and other tropes of high fantasy, but use language that’s very similar to what we use hear and now.

Similar, but not identical…because you can ruin a story’s effect with words that don’t fit. Slang is particularly dangerous. It’s one thing for a grim-and-gritty wizard to say, “Kill the bastard!” It’s quite another for the wizard to say, “Awesome, dude!” Many slang words and phrases are strongly associated with a specific place and time; use them in a different context, and they sound off-key.

This means that you have to be aware of how language has changed over the ages. Some usages that are ubiquitous today are actually quite new and will ring false in non-modern contexts. The first one that occurs to me is the common use of “need” as a synonym for “want”. Many people don’t think twice about saying, “I need you to pay attention,” or, “I need this to happen today.” However, no one talked like that when I was a kid; I’d guess that the idiom is less than twenty years old. If you write something, say, taking place in the 1960′s, old fogeys like me will notice if you use 2014 phraseology.

So How Do You Tune Your Diction?

As with everything else in writing, you start by reading voraciously and analytically. If a particular book sounds lofty, how does it achieve that effect? If the ambiance is “trailer trash”, what’s the secret to getting that tone…and how does it influence your response to the story? How do the words make you feel about the action and the characters? Do you connect with them more, or less? Do the word choices make the story feel more “real” (even if the setting includes magic or ray-guns) or do the word choices create some different feeling? Most importantly, does that feeling work? Does the language yank you out of the story or heighten the story’s effect?

It’s a useful exercise to write a short scene in a variety of dictions, with each version having the same content but a different tone of voice. This gives you practice in playing with tone; it also lets you see how the differences affect the reader’s relationship with the story. Slipping on a banana peel can have the air of comedy or tragedy—it all depends on your delivery.


That’s the end for this time…and perhaps it’s the end of the Skill List Project too, unless I think of significant skills that I’ve left out, or if someone draws such skills to my attention. Meanwhile, the SF Novelists group have begun an effort to deal with a single theme each month. I think that’s a great idea, so next month, I’ll throw in my two cents’ worth on whatever theme is chosen. Ciao!

Filed under For Novelists, language, learning to write, reading, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

There are 3 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    Writing pastiches of writers whose diction you admire helps.

    Be forewarned that if you inflict any of those pastiches on any editors, I will deny ever having heard of your existence.

  2. 2. Wolf Lahti

    I began my first novel with, “This is folly.” I had no idea at the time what I was beginning (’cause that’s how I roll), but the strictures inherit in those three words determined all that followed. Answering the implicit questions (What is folly and why? Who is speaking? Who is this person speaking to?) was delimited by the nature of the word “folly”. This was clearly not something set in modern-day New Jersey (or if it was, I had a lot of explaining to do). The personality of the speaker (critical, probably cynical) and the genre of the story (fantasy or middle-ages-ish) was contained in the seed of those two syllables.

    A tone was struck, and all that came after needed to evince the same tone, or the reader (and the writer) would be jarred out of the experience.


  1. The Skill List Project: Index at SF Novelists

Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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