Stories are comprised of words. In one way or another, it takes those smaller parts to piece together the full picture. I’m fascinated by words. If I suddenly find myself with loads of time, I want conduct a study of words and their evolution and meaning over time and throughout culture. It’s amazing how much power these foundational blocks of storytelling hold.
Before we unpack the power of words, I want to promise my good friend Blake Hemmerling that soon I’ll do an entire post about fonts. Though probably only he will read it.
At the onset, what baffles me when I think about words is how drastically they’ve changed over time and how their meaning holds a different level of weight. Imagine one of us telling Einstein that his theory of relativity was “cool”. He’d probably be more lost than he was while studying his theory. However now, that word, cool, is so common we don’t even think about it. I recently heard someone refer to an awesome dance performance as “ill”. We’re using words to extol their opposite. I’m interested to see how many words in our every day language aren’t defined in Webster’s Dictionary in the same way that we use them. Three words in particular really rub me the wrong way when thrown around frivolously. They are: “love”, “hate” and “good”. Each are simple words but carry such weight. Hate alludes to abhorring something with intense animosity, love implies that you’d die for that person and good describes a quality of something beyond our earthly understanding of perfection. What if we thought deeply about the words we choose today?
I think this has a practical and relational application. First, for my fellow filmmakers and screenwriters, we have an opportunity to think about our choice in words for days on end. That’s a luxury we’re not given while waiting in line at Starbucks. There’s no reason we should settle for half-ass words with opaque definitions when we have a veritable pantheon of luscious words at our fingertips. This doesn’t mean we need to riddle our works with loquacious soliloquies. In fact, we should strive for just the opposite. I had a screenwriter once tell me to remove the last two lines of dialogue in each of my scenes. I looked at him with dismay but followed his instruction. After examining my new script, I was blown away by the weight words took on that previously floated away like a helium balloon. I enjoy painting a picture for the reader but how much more invigorating is it when that entire canvas gets covered with a single word?
Secondly, on a deeper level, if we were to really think about the words we used, when we use them and how often we spoke, I think we’d all listen a lot better. I’ve fallen in many pits and tried to talk my way out when in fact the best thing I could do was listen. Listening is where storytelling begins. If we’re so caught up in hearing ourselves talk or, perhaps, we don’t realize how much we talk, how are we ever to uncover a new gem? Would we ever hear the tale of a real life superhero, cry with the Juliet on your floor, or learn from a modern day Gandalf? My challenge is for all of us to stop, take a step back and think about the words we’re using. What do they mean, how does this person interpret my words, and most importantly, should I be using words at all? Listen. There are stories are all around us but the best ones don’t need to use superfluous words. I guess that means we better listen up because they’ll be gone in a flash.