Getting the Word Sequence Right

Nat Russo How-To, Necromancer, Word Choice 6 Comments

The title is a mouthful, but the concept is very simple. You may have the right words, but if you’re getting the word sequence wrong, you’ll leave the reader confused. 


Is your table dressed in purple robes trimmed in gold?


Tables Wearing Robes

You’re probably wondering what I’m going on about with the picture of the table and reference to robes. It’s lifted straight out of an early draft of Necromancer Awakening (my bestselling dark fantasy novel, now available on Amazon).
I had written a scene where my protagonist is dragged in front of a kangaroo court, beaten, scared to death, and certain he was doomed. This is the original description that eventually made its way into the hands of my beta reader:

A row of men sat together on one side of a long stone table, dressed in purple robes trimmed with gold.

Seemed innocent enough. It’s a prime example of the type of thing you’ll often see in an early draft. You’re not really stopping to edit yourself, which is a good thing. Instead, you’re allowing the words to spill out in whatever order they present themselves.

Like I said, this is a good thing. But it’s also bad: As the writer, you know what you’re trying to describe. Your eyes will skim over poor word choices while your subconscious fills in the blanks. 

My beta reader saved the day with this note:

The table is dressed in purple robes trimmed with gold?

Oh for the love of…


Yes. Yes it was. And I didn’t see it until it was pointed out to me. But no matter how I tried to defend the word choice to myself, the deal was done. I could never again read that sentence without imagining a table wearing a purple and gold robe.

I think you can see this wasn’t a problem that would require a rocket scientist to solve. It was a simple word sequence problem … but a word sequence problem with a somewhat humorous side effect. So I fired up Scrivener (who am I kidding … Scrivener is always open on my laptop) and changed the word order.

A row of men, dressed in purple robes trimmed with gold, sat together on one side of a long stone table.

Problem solved. Had I been thinking about using Structured Descriptions I would have gotten it right the first time.

Flogging the Protagonist

No, that’s not a euphemism. It’s a particularly shocking and bloody scene that takes place in Necromancer Awakening. I’ll warn you now … if you have a weak stomach for violence and blood, read no further. Either click away from the article or stare at this puppy until you’re sufficiently numb:

I would never flog a protagonist. Nat’s a meanie-head.


Ok. Here we go.

In a very early draft of this scene, I was trying to wrap my mind around how to present the violence in a way that would be both understandable, excruciating, and have the emotional impact I desired. I’m taking this entirely out of context for our purposes, of course, so I don’t expect it to have much emotional impact. This is merely a small snippet of a much larger sequence of increasingly violent events.

Enough babbling. On with the original version:

The scourge struck the prisoner, and a scream, which was unrecognizable as human, escaped from his mouth. The guard pulled the scourge away, ripping bloody chunks of flesh from the man’s back and scattering them into the crowd. Blood sprayed backward and covered the guard’s face and armor.

You, in the back with the sick bag! The puppy! Look at the puppy!

That was close. I warned you. Fortunately for me, my beta reader has a stronger stomach. I received two notes on this paragraph. The first doesn’t relate to sequence. It was an issue with me describing the scream as “unrecognizable as human”, which in my genre may confuse the reader. The second note, however, applies directly to our subject:

Weird chronology. Blood would splatter on impact with flesh, then would arc up as he raised the scourge. Unless he dragged it back, then it would spray back behind the guard.

I should have known my beta reader would know the proper way to flog someone to death (I’m looking at YOU Joan!)

So I went back to Scrivener, and this is what my not-so-little fingers tapped out:

The scourge struck the prisoner and blood sprayed backward, covering the guard’s face and armor. A gurgling scream escaped the wounded prisoner’s mouth. The guard pulled the scourge away, tearing bloody chunks of flesh from the man’s back and scattering them into the crowd.

This didn’t end up being the finished draft, but it corrected the problem. Again, had I been thinking about structuring my descriptions properly, this wouldn’t have happened. But that’s ok. I’d rather have this come out during the rewrite than stop my train of thought during a first draft. That would kill the creative process.

The upshot is this: It doesn’t matter if you’ve chosen the right words. If you don’t place them in the correct order—the order that properly conveys the image in your mind—then you may as well have not chosen the correct words in the first place.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 6

    1. Thanks, B.A.! Joan is a true gem. Whenever I don’t like something, but can’t put my finger on why it’s not working, she usually zeroes right in on the problem.

  1. I don’t use a beta reader, but for D&D i was allocated an amazing editor. She is also an award winning poet and I quickly realised has a sense of the right word in the right place. I read my stuff out loud (especially conversations) but I admit, whenever she suggested an inversion or moved a phrase and I re-read, boy did the writing lift off the page. Lesson learned: we do need a second pair of eyes!

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