2017 minus 35: Stresses and writing them

Posted: 27 November 2016 in 2017 minus

While listening today to BBC Radio 4’s superb adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s How The Maquis Got His Coat Back, I’ve been thinking about words. Specifically I’ve been thinking about how they sound different when you say them out loud as how they sound in your – or more particularly my – head when read. 

It’s not just the character’s voices, although unless it’s an adaptation of a character that’s already been portrayed on screen or on radio, everyone’s going to interpret slightly differently how a character sounds.

Sure, you can say that a character comes from, say, Margham, Port Talbot, Wales, but so did both Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton, and despite there being similarities in their accents, they don’t sound identical by any means. So does it matter that one has a deeper voice than the other did?

If I write a character that comes from Luton, well – my late brother and I had voices that were so similar that – as I mentioned last week – even his wife couldn’t always tell us apart. But my younger brother’s voice and my own are very different, not only the sound of the voice but the words we use, the phrases we employ in everyday life.

What makes a character’s voice distinctive, surely, isn’t only the accent, nor merely the vocabulary they use, but how much they care about the individual things upon which they express an opinion, or state a fact.

Any actor will stress a line differently, and how they stress it will reveal much to an audience. Not just a simple delaration such as “Come here, you.” “COME here, you”, “Come HERE, you” and “Come here, YOU” all say different things, but the level of emphasis and the different intonation of the rest of the sentence will convey to the audience what the actor, and the director, what they want the audience to know and understand.

But what about prose where there is no actor, where the reader gets the prose flat and simple? OK, the author can embolden a word, or put it in italics – I do it myself sometimes – but I am often concerned that it’s a lazy way of writing, relying upon direction when the correct use of words would have accomplished the task with more skill and greater efficiency.

And that’s entirely apart from the other problem of writing dialogue; that when you’re writing a cadence or a dialect with which you’re not familiar. It never fails to irk me when people from outside London write crime dramas and have characters talk about someone going to prison for “a ten year stretch”. There’s no such idiom. It’s “a ten stretch”. It’s lazy writing, but have I taken enough care over the years when writing characters who aren’t from London? Have I made blunders as bad as, if not worse, than them?

Some years ago, I discovered I’d been using a word incorrectly. I had always thought the word defenestrate was a synonym for eviscerate. I’ve no idea where or when I came to think that, because it doesn’t. Originally from the French,  defenestrate has a very specific meaning: to throw someone out of a window. In a panic, I quickly searched every bit of fiction I’d ever written, checking to see whether I’d used ‘defenestrate’… I hadn’t. Immediate panic over, the odd disquiet remained with me… and indeed, remains with me to this day.

I have no idea where this post was going… but it’s ended with me admitting embarrassment, never a bad thing to end on.

Oh, wait, here’s a picture of a larynx. 

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

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