The Why of Words

The Why of Words is a series of posts that focus on understanding why certain sentences from the world of fiction grab us and affect us and how we can work to emulate them in our own writing.

Because this is the first post in the series, I should provide some background.

I read a lot of fiction. Usually two or three works of fiction at a time. But when I read, I don’t just read. I also learn. And to do it effectively, I write down the quotes from the book that I’m reading. I thought it would be helpful to others to analyze the quotes I’ve chosen and point out the elements that I think make them so effective. I hope that others can learn from these posts and ultimately, improve their writing.

This week, I’ve chosen a quote from a book you can’t help but love, “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman.

“The Sicilian flogged his mind to find an answer, but he found only failure.”

The Elements of Great Writing:

Word Choice


The word that caught me in this sentence was flogged; not because of the word itself but how it’s used. The Sicilian, Vizzini, is a cunning criminal who is having trouble thinking up an answer. And just as he beats and curses his own lackeys, he beats, whips and tortures his own mind.

There are two things I learned from this:

  1. The importance of being specific
  2. Specific words can provide more character insight
The importance of being specific

We associate words with experience. The more specific the word, the greater its ability to elicit an emotion. As writers, our goal is to evoke emotion. We want our readers to care, because only when they are emotionally invested will they continue reading.

Specific words can provide more character insight

The word “flogged” as it is used in this sentence, provides insight into Vizzini’s character. It conveys that Vizzini treats his mind like he treats his lackeys; that it should be whipped until it delivers the goods.


Many words in English convey the same meaning. In this case, Goldman could have used the term “whipped” instead of “flogged”. He didn’t because there was a better word that could add more alliteration to the sentence:

The Sicilian flogged his mind to find an answer, but he found only failure.

Applying it to your own writing:

Start with a verb. A specific verb; like flog or or gibber or contaminate.

  1. Use the verb in a sentence that conveys something about your character.
  2. Add alliteration to your sentence and use the verb you chose to add to it.

What verb did you choose? What does it expose or what insight does it provide about your character?