Last week I talked about how words have deeper meanings that can’t be translated to another language or explained fully. The words have lives of their own and, when used correctly, can gift you with a really beautiful expression or sentence. Now, I want to look at how words can mean multiple things at the same time, especially to a writer. This isn’t in the context of definitions, but rather, how words can be used to make a sentence mean thousand different things by understanding their different levels. Confused? No worries, it’ll all make sense. Keep reading!
The whole “different levels” idea makes a lot of sense when I put it into the perspective with a quote from the book The Golden Compass, the first book of the His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This is a personal favorite series of mine and is known to be stuffed full of subtle (and not-so-much) hints and images over a variety of sensitive subjects.
The trilogy focuses on 12-year-old Lyra, a rough-around-the-edges tomboy who is destined to save the world. To help with her journey she is given a truth telling device called an alethiometer. It’s a large compass-like object and has a series of images on its face. In order to use it Lyra has to move the three hands to different symbols that form a question and the fourth hand will swing from symbol to symbol on the compass to give its answer.
As you may have already guessed, each symbol has multiple meanings so that any question can be asked and answer given. There are thousands of meanings, and the user of the alethiometer must go through various encyclopedias to get the right meaning. Lyra differs in that she can look at the alethiometer and hold all of the meetings in her head, knowing where to move the hands to ask the question and how to interpret the answer:
“And how to do you know what these meanings are?”
“I kind of see ’em. Or feel ’em, rather, like climbing down a ladder at night, you put your foot down and there’s another rung. Well, I put my mind down and there’s another meaning, and I kind of sense what it is. Then I put ’em all together. There’s a trick in it like focusing your eyes.”
In the same way that Lyra talks about the symbols having different “levels” for different meanings, words have that same power. When we, as writers, construct a sentence, we have to make sure that we are using to correct words on the right “levels”. Using the wrong word and/or level would lead to a different meaning entirely.
To me, words have the same magical power as the alethiometer has to Lyra. Sometimes I’ll go back and forth between three synonyms for hours in the back of my mind because using the wrong one really does change everything. A lot of the time to read or may not be able to notice the “small difference” of a sentence that has the wrong word, from that with the right one, but they will feel it, whether they are aware of it or not. It’s my job to make sure they don’t misinterpret the sentence by ensuring and using the perfect words.
If you’re still following, keep an eye out for Part III, the final section, of this idea net week. Also, feel free to comment with alternative comparisons to complex/deep levels of words, I’d love to hear them!