Today, we’re going to talk about the concept of le mot juste. I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase; coined by the French writer Gustave Flaubert, the term translates to “the right word.” Flaubert described it thus:
Whatever you want to say, there is only one word that will express it, one verb to make it move, one adjective to qualify it. You must seek that word, that verb, and that adjective, and never be satisfied with approximations . . . to escape the difficulty.
Careful writers will obey this advice in order to avoid clichés. Here, for example, is a passage I wrote in an old story of mine, “Russia after the Fall of Communism.” The story follows a recently widowed woman, Jonny, who does not now know what to do with her new freedom. Working as a waitress in a diner, she meets a man who understands immediately what sort of woman she is and what she needs.
I described their understanding in this way:
She did not have to obey. Other, misunderstanding women would have turned him out. But he knew this native tongue, knew how to navigate the knots of her heart, and like a lost dog she submitted.
You may or may not like this style of writing, but when I wrote the above passage, I labored over my word choices for some time. I could have written simply, “He understood Jonny and what to say to compel her to obey.” But in my mind, such a passage would have been a cop-out. Writing only that he understood her gives the reader no insight into Jonny’s state of mind, which is key in the story’s denouement. Thus, I searched for several hours for just the right words.
However, the search for le mot juste doesn’t have to end in an overly complicated sentence. As often as not, the right word may be a good old Anglo-Saxon word – cram, briny, gore. Your search for the right word is not the search for the most impressive word; it is a search for the most precise word.
As always, this should never trip you up while you are drafting. Save it for your second draft, once you’ve worked the kinks out of the plot. But when you do go back to smooth out your draft, be vigilant, asking yourself if you’ve resorted to any tricks, any shorthand, any faded images. Often, an otherwise banal story can be transformed by the right word choices.