Sunday, December 9, 2012

Connotation and Why You Care

Words have their own “lives,” much the way characters act naughty or nice behind our backs when we’re not looking. The lives of our characters are offshoots of our intentions as novelists. Words, though, have lives of their own—perhaps ones we never planned. This doesn’t mean we get to ignore the history of the words we choose. Just the opposite, in fact.

Let’s say you want your character walking on a starry night. Great. Just remember that Vincent Van Gogh planted a very particular image. Don McLean’s song further accentuated that, and new versions continue to flourish.

Why does this matter to novelists? Because the standard paradigm affects how readers read your scene. One choice is avoiding that language altogether. The other is intentionally harnessing or revamping the meaning a particular phrase evokes.

Let’s say that Lelia, your protagonist, flees the house during a heated argument and heads down a country road lit only by stars. Like Van Gogh’s, these stars seem gigantic and turbulent. They signal fury and madness spinning out of control above a peaceful village. If that’s how your protagonist feels, all you need is, “Slamming the screen door, Lelia stepped into the starry night.”

But what if she doesn’t feel that way at all? Maybe Lelia dashes outside, looks up at the stars and finds inspiration. This marriage isn’t a happy one, and every distant point of light reinforces this new-found clarity. She’s had enough. She’s moving out. She’s moving on. If that’s so, either describe the stars some other way or help your readers see what Lelia does. Perhaps she thinks of Van Gogh and then smiling, shakes her head. The guy who cut off his ear had it all wrong. This is pure “Wish I may, wish I might.”

The familiar phrases that leap into every writer’s mind arrive there because they’re so familiar. So identify any wording that conveys iconic, archetypal imagery, however accidentally. Then make conscious choices. Build on tradition, reverse it, or simply mention “stars” rather than “starry night.”

Tip: Train yourself to notice the connotations that your readers do.

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