Word-Hacking Emotion

Forget brain surgery, its poetry and psychology that hack our minds. Yes, we generally discuss narrative here, but the principles of poetry are what turn description and detail into mind control engines.

Remember your lessons on imagery? Unless your English teacher was way cooler than mine was, he didn’t introduce the subject by saying, “Check it out, kids, here’s how to poke around in a person’s subconscious!” I probably would have paid more attention if he said it that way.

“Imagery means to use figurative language to represent objects, actions and ideas in such a way that it appeals to our physical senses.” http://literarydevices.net/imagery/

Here’s the deal, since written communication can’t actually reproduce physical sensations, imagery relies on our memory. Consider the following sentence:

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Other than being a familiar tool for typing and/or penmanship, this is also a comfortably visual sentence. Each word operates as a code, which, entered into the mind through light signals, then electrical pulses to neurons, produces a recalled memory of data associated with the words.

Let’s look at the noun: fox. I’ve seen a fox. I’m lucky my local zoo has a number of foxes in different colors, so a “brown fox” isn’t too big a jump. Even if I hadn’t seen a fox, any number of picture books, photos online, or previous experience with the word will provide sufficient context clues to produce some picture of what a fox is. We know what jumping looks like, we know what a dog looks like. We also are given some adjectives, making the fox quick and the dog lazy.

This is basic coding, if we’re continuing with that analogy. If we’re really going to hack this system, there’s a whole other level we’ll need access to – emotional composites.

There are three keys for coding your imagery – Context, Connotation, Composites.

If you place your content word “fox” (or “dog” or “lazy” or “jump”) next to other words, the image changes. “The quick brown dog jumped over the lazy fox.” Or “The quick dog jumped over the clever fox.” Each new context highlights something different about the large concept “fox”. The adjective is a direct modifier of the concept, and the circumstance does some demonstrative description as well. Context modifies what comes to mind for the reader by altering, or adding to, the image of the content word.

Connotation, or an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning, operates within cultures – it plays with the context of the reader, not the context of the word. In many cultures, the fox is a trickster figure. They’re clever, mischievous, often selfish and tricky. When calling someone a “fox” in America, this can mean they’re being complimented on their intelligence or problem-solving skills. It can also mean the person is slick, sexy, or attractive. In other places, the symbolism of a word may vary.

In our example sentence, as it’s an English alphabet instructional device, places the fox at the advantage over the dog. A dog, hunting tradition dictates, chases the fox. In this situation, however, the dog is lazy and not in pursuit. The fox is, by comparison, quick and clever – both leaping over the enemy and doing it with energy and speed. Carefully consider connotation when writing in order to say more with a word, beyond the literal meaning.

Composites are the most powerful descriptive tool for both prose writers and poets. Using the layers of literal meaning and connotation (or ascribed meaning), wordsmiths create combinations that blend into very specific and powerfully emotional results.

“Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.”

Digging, Seamus Heaney

“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple / with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me / And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves / and satin candles, and say we’ve no money for butter.”

Warning, Jenny Joseph

“If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.”

The Soldier, Rupert Brooke

When revising a crucial phrase, consider these three things when selecting your words. Make full use of the already existing shortcuts in your audience’s mind and light up just the right combination for your message. Words become purposeful with emotion.

 

Links/Resources:

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/how-to-write-vivid-descriptions

https://litreactor.com/columns/writing-powerful-descriptions

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