PhotobucketI want to share a quick thesaurus tip with you today that might help to strengthen your storytelling.

Robert McKee in his book Story asks us to consider opposites, to play out contrasting forces to create tension in scenes and chapters. Which powerful force will prevail in your story—the Light-as-Luke side, or Darth? It shouldn’t be obvious. Create a seesaw effect between the forces, give each multiple turns to make its case throughout the book, and readers will be off-balance, unsure what’s going to happen next. That’s what you want.

The contrasting ideas and root of my characters’ struggles in my work-in-progress are hope and death. And though I hit on the most obvious forms of hope and death in my story, I didn’t want to be limited to just those things. That’s where my thesaurus came in–providing some unique ideas.

Toss a Wide Net to Gather Contrasting Forces

Early in the drafting process, I visited thesaurus.com and plugged in the word hope. I collected synonyms like ambition, optimism, believe, mirage (fallacies of vision), and related words, like befriend, alive, moving, vivacious, attached and dependency. I did the same thing for the opposite value, death, gathering words like funereal, lost, rigor mortis, resignation, departure, bad luck, disappearance, crime, sullenness, mute. I spanned out, formed more lists of positive/hopeful words and phrases linked to my previous list—words like trust, together, moving, attached, ponder, risk—then did the same for the negative/death words—gathering the positive words’ antonyms (distrust, alone, stagnant, disconnected, withdraw, ignore, retreat).

Make Lists of Positive and Negative Values, Brainstorm Possibilities

I plunked lists of words into columns labeled Negative Value and Positive Value, until I had three pages of words to draw from. And then I sat with the list, and what I knew of my story, and circled all of the words and phrases I thought might play into the journey of two girls walking across the state of West Virginia, jotting ideas in the margins: outcast (meet drifters?), neglected (people, things?), locomote (need a train; fits great with the setting), up the creek (someone lost, maybe secondary storyline?), callous, roots, drive, exit (car accident?), swinging (park?), free as a bird, safe house (introduce a new character), etc…

Utilize Values Down to the Micro-Level

In every scene, and in as many graphs as I could, I tried to find ways to lean on my positive and negative values–usually leaning on one much more heavily than the other in a single scene. For example, my more negative main character–the one focused on death–comments on the unventilated, uncomfortable, sweltering bus, and hones in on worst-case scenarios and the dreariest parts of something–the rust, the grime, the callouses on her feet.

That doesn’t mean my more negative character is one note. On the contrary, it was interesting to see how she met with new challenges and grew past her tendencies, thinking one thing at times and doing the opposite. And when my more positive character, my hope girl, met with a wall? Having her evade or scale, or be eviscerated by it was also interesting to explore.

Who knew the thesaurus could be such a useful tool? Aid. Resource.

What are the positive and negative values in your wip? What techniques do you use to bring out those values in your storytelling?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s zachstern

About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was published in March. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.