Friday, September 30, 2011

The associated meaning of words

Today I'm doing a guest post at Wicked & Tricksy on the associated meaning of words (I know, I know... nerd-alert). Here's a taste of the article so, if you're interested, head on over to Wicked & Tricksy and read the whole thing.

EDIT: Since it appears the Wicked & Tricksy site is no longer up, I've reposted the entire thing here.

Description is often seen as something *dirty* in the writing world, on par with adverbs and clever dialogue tags. When description is done well, it can plunge a reader directly into a scene, but when done badly, a reader’s eyes will glaze over and start skimming.

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

...did you groan just then?

That’s a classic, yes I know how wonderful the book is, but to clarify my point, I'm going to use is as an example of a bad line of description. Its not bad in that it doesn’t make sense... it’s bad in that it’s boring. Of course it’s going to be dark when there’s a storm, ‘cause clouds are blocking out the sun. It’s also normal that it's dark at night, like so normal it isn't even worth mentioning.

That line of description is not only literal, it’s repetitive. Neither of which are food for the imagination.

It can be tempting to *fix* boring description by whipping out that thesaurus and hammering the reader with a string of words usually found in the vocabulary section of the SATs. This can lead to overly wordy sentences that will tangle up your tongue like a Cirque du Soleil contortionist if one ever tried to read the line out loud.

So here’s something to think about. Beyond their dry, dictionary definition, you can hunt up words to use based on their associated meanings. Think of it like baggage that each word is carting around.

Do you remember having to diagram brainstorm clouds in school? Like, if you were researching pandas, you’d write ‘Panda’ in the center of a piece of paper, then draw connecting lines to things associated with pandas, like China, bamboo, habitat, endangered animals, zoo, etc.

The same idea works when you’re trying to describe something.

Let’s pick something easy, like describing an evening sky. If it’s a *dark and stormy night* that you’re imagining, what are some of the associated meanings you could use to make it more interesting? Well, storm clouds are wet because they contain rain, which weighs them down. The rest of the sky would be blotted out, the air would feel moist and perhaps charged with electricity, which has elements of excitement and danger. The clouds and the rain would wash a layer of grey over the surrounding area and dull any vibrant colors.

So what tone are you seeking with your evening sky? If your character is depressed or has had a major set-back, then concentrating on the grey washing away color, or the thick moisture in the air which makes breathing difficult would be a place to start. Words like ‘smothering’, ‘heavy’, ‘drowning’, ‘faded’ are all visceral words that could be used to set your evening atmosphere. The surrounding noises could be ‘muted’ or ‘choked out’ by the sound of rain.

If your character is heading out on an adventure with danger lurking in the darkness, then maybe the wildness and destructive element of the storm is what you want to accentuate. ‘Spark’ and ‘crackle’ could describe the sounds of the storm, or the anxiety and excitement of the character. The idea of being ‘wrapped’ or ‘hidden’ by the clouds brings to mind camouflage, or words like ‘slink’,‘glide’, ‘creep’, and 'dart', which would normally be used to describe a person, can be used for their association of stealth.

Think of what your character is doing, what they are thinking, their state of mind, their deepest desires and their most terrifying fears.

On the other end of things, make sure the words you do choose mesh well with their associated meanings... for example, I’ve read lines describing teeth being squished together, or a bloated knife being stabbed into someone’s leg. Both ‘squished’ and ‘bloated’ are words that have no associated meaning with stiff, unyielding substances. Metal can’t be ‘inflated’ or ‘engorged’, teeth and bone can’t ‘bend’ or ‘twist’, scents don’t flutter across someone’s skin and a taste can’t 'ring' in one’s mouth.

Be wary of the baggage words drag around. If you’re careful, the layers of associated meaning will amplify your story and your descriptions, but used poorly, it will feel like you opened that thesaurus to a random page and started filling in the blanks.

I think the best description is when the associated meanings can be twisted and hit the reader in a way they don't expect. Normally positive words like 'cute' can be used as a vicious put-down, if, for example, it's being associated with a small animal/pet, something lower on the evolutionary scale, or perhaps the undeveloped reaction or stature of a child. It all depends if the associated meanings are positive or negative.

One example of amazing description was in 'Imaginary Girls' by Nova Ren Suma, which I read recently. In the first chapter, there's this description of the reservoir:

"Less dangerous would be the reservoir itself, too large to keep track of in the night - an oil spill instead of a mapped and measured ocean."

In a single line, you not only get an idea of what it looks like (black, slick and reflective), but you get the idea of how the narrator views this body of water: a man-made disaster that kills/destroys and is impossible to fully contain, or un-do.

...all that from describing it as 'an oil spill'.

Description doesn't have to mean pages of purple prose... more often than not, a single image that someone can visualize or relate to will be much more powerful.

Go through your favourite books, seek out the snippets of description and analyze them. What specific words were used and what other images/feelings/sensations could be associated with them?

...and maybe, just for fun, re-write the line, 'It was a dark and story night' with your character and your setting. See how much information you can layer in there, simply through a few choice words/images.


  1. Wonderful post, btw. I copied and pasted it into a Word doc for reference.

  2. Wow...okay, so this made so much sense that I'm floored by the obvious-ness now that it's been pointed out.

    I'll just slip out the side door to go make sure I don't have any "dark and stormy night" styled references in my stories.

  3. Glad you liked my... overly nerdy post. I'm going to do another post for Wicked & Tricksy next Friday as well, but that's not going to be a regular thing ;)

  4. So true! The difference between telling someone a story and dragging them through living it. :)

  5. Nothing is absolute about writing. "It was a dark and stormy night" may be a cliche today, but it was the first line of a Newbery award winner--Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

  6. I think writers are a little bit afraid of description these days--novels are supposed to be all about action! conflict! tension! But good description is so vital to a good read, for me. I'm in the middle of The Book Thief, and I'm just floored by some of the --almost throwaway -- descriptions, particularly of people. Every one is like a needle in the heart.


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)