Sunday, July 28, 2013

A STUDY IN GREEN: Giving Words Meaning

While editing a short story today, I noticed a Hawaiian name, Ma'omaka, that I had applied to a hapa-haole (part-Caucasian) character: Ma’o for green, maka for eye. I didn’t use the name to suggest she was envious or jealous, but as a detail of her Irish ancestry. 

It got me thinking that no word in a short story, or even in a novel, should be used without purpose. I should only use words that give meaning to the story. If a man steps into the scene wearing a green shirt, it is important to know the reason he is wearing the green shirt.  

Why is it important to the reader that the man is wearing a green shirt? Is it because the shirt is green? Or because it is “that” shirt? Or maybe because he is the one wearing the shirt?  

To illustrate: 

1. The man walked into the room tugging at the collar of his green shirt. He didn't especially like the color green, but his mother picked out all his clothes and this shirt had been on sale at Penneys, half-off. She never passed up a sale on shirts, regardless of color. 

This might suggest to the reader that the man is sort of a “Mama’s boy.” In this example, the color of the shirt is almost incidental. 

2. The man walked into the room wearing a green shirt. Last week, he received the shirt as a birthday present from his wife who loved the color green. He hated it. 

Might this suggest he is hen-pecked, or that he also hates his wife? 

3. The man wearing a green shirt walked into the room. The shirt belonged to his lover who had jilted him only last week, discarding the crumpled shirt on the closet floor. 

So many possibilities here. 

In each case, the reader interprets the details based on experience which may have nothing to do with the color green. Maybe the reader had a domineering mother who insisted on choosing all her wardrobe items for her. By hinting at the character’s thoughts, it offers the reader an opportunity to relate to the scene or the character in a personal way. 

To me, this works better than utilizing the green shirt only to veil “all those rippling muscles outlined by a downy coating of blonde hairs.” Well, maybe not.
But unless the secret to a mystery is concealed under that green shirt, I plan to give it a role, or remove the shirt completely.

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