Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of language, is brought to you by freelance writer Samantha Gray.
Choosing the right words for your story
I’d like to share an iteration of a children’s folk tale that deals with the realities of the natural world. I think the tale is a simple but effective example of importance of word choice and usage in narration. Sit back, read on, and enjoy what is probably the most overlooked topics in a typical freshman writing seminar. I’ll simply call my tale “The Salmon and the Grizzly”.
On a cold morning in the fall, a big brown grizzly bear was making its way to a nearby river. The grizzly was hungry for a meal, and hoped to find something that would satisfy his appetite. The sound of his grunts filled the crisp air as he rooted around the riverbed.
Now, this grizzly was not your typical bear. He preferred eating roots, vegetables, and bugs all day long. This was quite an unusual trait for a grizzly, as they mostly ate fish in the river or smaller animals in the forest. But this grizzly was content to avoid all the work that went along with hunting.
While the grizzly was turning over rocks near the bank, he spied a flash of silver in the water.
It was a big salmon, swimming upstream.
“Hello, Mr. Salmon! How are you today?” said the grizzly to the fish, approaching the river. The grizzly was a lover of good conversation, and wished for some company while he ate.
Naturally the salmon was quite scared about a greeting from a bear. He knew that bears, especially grizzlies, preferred eating salmon whole rather than talking to them.
The grizzly guessed the salmon’s fears, so he tred carefully into the river, smiling with his grizzly teeth in an attempt to seem friendly. “I don’t want to harm you, I don’t even eat fish. Really!” said the grizzly.
As if to prove this fact, the grizzly opened up a paw to reveal a few bugs and a stubby brown root. “This is what I eat,” he said to the salmon.
Maybe it was the beautiful weather or maybe it was grizzly’s smile. Whatever it was, the salmon seemed convinced that the grizzly meant no harm, so he swam up to the bear and introduced himself as Mr. Salmon. The two spent the morning talking about many things, including the changing season, the happenings of the forest, and the bizarre habits of salmon. They spoke to each other all morning. The sound of the river current was the only other sound in the area besides their voices.
After a while, Mr. Salmon said told Mr. Grizzly that he had to get going upstream to take care of business. Mr. Grizzly moved his great big furry paw towards the Mr. Salmon as if to wave goodbye, but at the last moment he reached for the fish, flung him in the air, and gulped him down in one big bite. The entire event took only a few seconds.
Mr. Grizzly almost could not believe what did, but this was not the first time he had slipped from his bug and vegetable diet. “I can’t help it,” he said sadly to himself as he crossed the river to the other side of the forest. “It’s in my nature.”
So…what was that all about? Stories like this one exemplify why language choice is imperative to proper storytelling. This is a children’s story about dangerous animals acting upon their nature, even if they intend otherwise. Grizzlies eating salmon is a completely normal occurrence in the natural world.
At a glance, the story is meant to portray grizzlies for the animals they are, so that children understand that these creatures—while cuddly, witty, and funny in cartoon depictions—are meat-eating animals at heart. It took the conventional anthropomorphizing in children’s stories and turned it on its head by giving an animal its real habits. The narration was setting up the obvious the whole time by constantly reminding the reader about how “most” grizzlies are dangerous to salmon, so you had a good idea about how this tale would end up.
The language was necessarily simplistic and clean because it only had to relay the message of animal instinct. Had the language about eating of the salmon been more graphic or descriptive, it would have lost its instructional impact to children. Instead, the story would come off as a needlessly horrific tale about an amiable bear that senselessly eats a newfound friend. Instead, I tried to achieve writing an animal fairy tale in the same vein as those with deceptive foxes and wise turtles.
The story won’t win any literary prizes, but it should teach a few writers the importance of word choice, particularly student writers in college just getting their hands dirty. How do you use language to temper the strengths of your stories?
Thank you, Samantha, that was really interesting, and I loved the story, like a midweek Flash Fiction Friday.
Samantha Gray is a freelance writer based in Houston, Texas, who offers college advice to those interested in furthering their studies and careers. She can be reached for questions or comments at email@example.com.
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