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Using Strong Nouns In Your Fiction, by Kelly Inglis

A good author understands the power of strong prose. A great story evokes a myriad of images and emotions as you read. It draws you into the fictitious world that has been created for your escapism. Strong prose enhances the reader’s experience. It enables the reader to create distinctive mental images of scenes or characters in the story, or the layout of the haunted house, or to get a sense of a character’s true emotions at any given point in the story.

I previously discussed the use of strong verbs to convey tension and strong emotion in your writing, but how do strong nouns strengthen your prose?

A noun is a ‘thing’ – something that you can see or touch. So essentially, a noun describes people, places, animals or things. You can see a cat or the desert, or touch your pet dog. Nouns describe tangible things.

Just like verbs, nouns can be strong or weak. Nouns have three subdivisions, weak, strong and specific. Which category they fall into depends largely on the amount of detail they provide the reader. Weak nouns are vague and provide little information to the reader in the way of setting a scene or evoking strong imagery. A strong noun is the opposite of this. A strong noun is specific, descriptive and provides the reader information about the scene, allowing them to create their own detailed mental images of the unfolding story. A strong noun is one that provides specific detail, such as a character’s name or a recognised brand name a reader can relate to. Providing additional detail to the reader by using strong nouns strengthens the imagery, tone and setting of a scene, and intensifies the emotional involvement of the reader. Let’s take a look at the following example.

He drove off in his car.

‘Car’ is a weak noun. It’s ambiguous and provides no specific information other than that it’s a motor vehicle. So the character has a car. Big deal. Lots of people have a car. ‘Sports car’ is a stronger noun because it imparts specific detail to the reader. The reader may intuitively associate a sports car with an older male going through a mid-life crisis, or a conceited, young playboy type. A noun that might be used to convey a more precise image of the scene would be ‘Ferrari’. Most readers know that a Ferrari is a very expensive sports car and that only the very wealthy can afford to buy one. By exchanging a weak noun with a strong, specific noun, a vivid image of an ostentatious and wealthy man who throws his money away on fast cars is planted in the reader’s mind. Using strong, specific nouns sets the scene with more clarity by providing detailed imagery to the reader.

Let’s take a look at another example, but this time we’ll examine how exchanging weak nouns with strong or specific nouns can dramatically alter the tone of the scene, evoking very different emotions in the reader.

The boy lay in the gutter, cradling an empty bottle to his chest.

Although this sentence uses weak nouns, it still sets the tone of the scene and creates some concern in the reader for the boy’s wellbeing. However, the reader is left with many unanswered questions because of the weak nouns. How old is he? Is he asleep or is he dead? What sort of bottle is he holding? Weak nouns leave the reader with an incomplete picture, leaving them hanging emotionally. By tweaking this sentence in different ways we can dramatically alter the tone of the scene, thereby altering the emotional involvement of the reader.

The captain of the high school football team lay in the gutter, cradling an empty rum bottle to his chest.

Many readers would have little sympathy for the drunken football captain – he’s old enough to know better. We’ve all heard media reports of football players getting drunk and passing out, so the reader mentally rolls their eyes and sighs judgementally at another silly, rowdy, popular boy getting drunk. With the strong nouns providing additional description, the tone of the scene and the reader’s emotions change accordingly.

But look at how the tone of the scene and the reader’s emotions change when we change the strong nouns.

The toddler lay in the gutter, cradling an empty formula bottle to his chest.

The reader’s heart races as they are filled with sympathy, sorrow and concern for the poor little boy lying before them. His vulnerability is demonstrated with the use of the stronger noun ‘toddler’ and by the imagery of him clutching an empty bottle of formula to his chest. The reader’s emotions swell with the revelation of his youth and innocence, aching to cuddle this poor little lost soul. Has he been abandoned or abused? Was he hit by a car and left for dead? Is he starving? Strong nouns have the capacity to evoke powerful emotions in the reader and draw them into the story.

When editing your story, consider how you want the reader to be feeling as they read each scene. By changing a weak nouns into strong, specific nouns the vivid mental images and intense emotions you invoke in your reader will help them be emotionally invested in your story right up to the last word.


Kelly Inglis’s bio page


    Wings of FearThe Indigo SkySavage TideHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fragment of Dreams

Writing Novels in Australia

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jenn J McLeod | Come home to the country... #

    Another very timely post. I am LOVING these posts while I’m editing!!!!!! Thx guys

    July 24, 2013
  2. Nice one Kelly. I’ll be watching my nouns, for sure!

    July 24, 2013
  3. Excellent advice, Kelly! Some words are so evocative they need no adornment 🙂

    July 24, 2013
  4. Great post

    July 25, 2013
  5. Sharon Davies #

    Kelly: thank you for this information. It has come at an opportune moment-in the midst of writing, thinking of how to fit in with the style, the voice etc.. and without reading further just saw the word car and thought “ he drove off in a an instant, rapid as a robber in his six cylinder heap”. Will keep your article beside me. S. Willetts-Davies

    July 25, 2013
  6. Glad you all enjoyed the article. It’s been useful for ‘punching up’ some of my own prose as I write.

    July 31, 2013

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