Writerly Stuff: Beware of Word Inflation.

Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite. C. S. Lewis 

Are you guilty of word inflation?  It can be a serious problem at anytime, but especially when a writer wants the scene to build tension.  The temptation is to exaggerate and make the words as big as possible.  The temptation is to describe someone as “absolutely terrified”  and think this is effective.  It isn’t.  Curiously, it is most often the simple statements that carry the biggest impact.  Understating a situation can often be very powerful.  And it is simple, plain English without massive description, what some might call sparse writing which can be most effective.  You hope to show absolute terror anyway, not describe it. 

Consider the following.  By no means perfect, but: from my book Rome Too Far.  Greta goes to visit the local wise woman dressed in her red hooded robe, and her little brother Hansel tags along.  In this case, the local wolf haunting the forest happens to be a werewolf…

            “I’ll be home for supper.”  Greta said, but as she left, a sense of foreboding came over her.  That feeling increased when she got out of sight of the house.  The feeling was strong enough to make her stop and look around.  It was not something at home, or something to do with Papa, but it was something behind her, or up ahead, but behind in a way, like in the past.  She started to walk again and tried to explore the feeling of dread.

            She heard a roar behind, a growl and a scream, and she screamed.  She spun around.  She wanted to run but her legs gave out.  She screamed again before she saw Hans rolling on the ground, laughing.

            “Hans!”  She yelled and was not a happy person.  She decided some demon must have set that up.  Hans nearly gave her a heart attack.  She stomped her foot, made a fist, and let the steam out through gritted teeth.

            “But you were so funny,” Hans said.

            “Not funny!” she yelled.

            “You going to Mother Hulda’s?  Can I come?”  He was not really asking.  He would tag along regardless of what she said.  Then she thought that he had seemed very bored in the last few days.

            “Where are your friends?”  She asked, having caught her breath at last.

            “Doing stuff, I guess,” he said with a shrug.  Greta imagined it had something to do with his new position as son of the High Chief.  Either he said something or did something, or they did, or they were no longer sure about him.  Greta was certain that it was like the rain and it would blow over in time, but for the present, she returned his shrug.

            “Let’s go,” she said.  She was still feeling spooked and thought his company might help, even if he was a little creep.

            They had not gone very far up the road when Hans started off across country.  “Come on,” he hollered.  “Let’s take the shortcut.”

            “No,” Greta hollered back.  “I’m not tearing this dress on briars and bushes.”  How many dresses did he think she had?

            “I’m going,” he said and left, so it turned out she walked most of the way alone, after all.

            Hans waited for her where the road turned.  After the obligatory, “What kept you?” they crossed the last, short meadow to Mother Hulda’s house.  All the while, Greta shook her head.

            “Something’s spooky,” Hans said.  Even he felt it.  When they saw the house, the feeling intensified.  By the time they reached the porch, Greta could hardly keep from turning and running away.  She stopped at the door and told Hans to get behind her.  He did not argue. 

            She opened the door and screamed, and this time she knew what she was screaming about.  There were bits and pieces of Mother Hulda thrown all over the room.  Her head was on a corner of the bed facing the door.  One eye was missing, but she stared at them with the other.

            Greta could neither move nor stop screaming.  Hans pushed passed to see and promptly threw up behind the door.  That probably saved his life.  There was a noise in the back room.  A man hurriedly shuffled out of the dark.  His eyes were wide with madness.  He was naked and filthy, and he looked as if he had been burned everywhere.  His body was covered with sores and open wounds where there had once been blisters, and his face looked like it had melted.  

            Greta was still screaming but her legs were like rubber.  She could not abandon Hans.  She could not move… 

Word inflation can plague a work.  It can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but is most common in description.  Look at your own work.  See how you have played out the tension building moments, especially early in the story.  Sometimes, the simple suggestion that things might get worse before they get better can build things very nicely, provided you haven’t shot all your arrows in the first chapter.

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