Today in my English class we had a discussion about connotation and denotation. That and the thought that goes into sentence structure. It’s a lot to explain, but I know that some of this will help you in your writing.
Okay, there are two words that you need to know. Connotation is the meaning behind a word that isn’t included in the dictionary definition. Denotation is the actual dictionary definition of the word. This is important when you are writing… I’ll show you.
I’m going to give you two sentences that I’ll use as examples for the rest of this post. These are the ones we used in class, so I know what I’m talking about, for once (I’m mostly kidding). Ready?
At midnight, it stormed violently.
It started raining at midnight.
Here’s the point behind connotation: different words can set for different moods and tones. These moods and tones are how we set the scene as writers. In the first sentence, I used the word “stormed” and in the second I used “raining”. “Stormed” is a word that implies thunder and lightning and rushing winds. Trees falling and power outages. It is a word that makes you think of anger and excitement. Danger and violence. That’s the connotation. That’s the picture in your head that the word triggers without me having to elaborate further.
When I used the word “raining”, it didn’t give you as dramatic and intense of a picture to put to the scene. You might have thought only of the rain falling in fat droplets. You might have thought about the cloudy sky and the pitter pat on the window sills and roof. You might of thought of the cold and clammy feeling of trying to hide under an umbrella or sweat shirt. That’s a calmer connotation. It’s more soothing or maybe just a little bit more exciting than usual life.
So here’s why connotation is important in writing:
There are some really emotional and intense scenes in my upcoming novel. Scenes where my character is brushing up against death or trying desperately to escape with her life. Where she is scared for her life and losing people she loves. Honestly, I’m a monster for doing this to my character, but that’s not the point. The point is that when I wrote those scenes, I didn’t use calm words like “raining”. In those scenes, the skies were storming. There was a chorus of thunder rolling through the mountains and buildings watching her with glaring windows. I didn’t use words that would calm the reader. I used words that would be stronger, more intense, with a more terrifying connotation. It helped me set the scene.
So if you want to set a romantic scene, don’t use words like “loins” or “gnarly”. No, you would use words like “sweet” and “warm”. If you are writing a murder, then the rules bend a little if your murder is also a psychopath. If they are a psychopath, then you can get creative. Otherwise, use words with a terrifying connotation, like “slicing” or “ripping”. Don’t say “yell”. Say “scream”. If you are trying to set a calmer scene, then you use the words like “walk” instead of “run” and “soft” rather than “cutting”.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Also, just one more little thing. When you are writing a sentence, always put the most important thing in the sentence first. That’s the part that catches the readers attention better. The part that makes the image in their head before anything else.
When I say, “At midnight, it stormed violently,” the most important thing that I see is the time. When I say, “It started raining at midnight,” then the rain is the first thing to be pictured in my head. So when you are writing these scenes with words that are of an appropriate connotation, then think about which parts you want your reader to picture first.
We aren’t just writers.
We are painters through words and that means that we need to tell a story whenever putting an image into the mind of the reader. Maybe we start by talking about how dark it is, and then the chill of the wind, and then the vague shadow man walking through the streets. Or do we start with the man walking, the chill of the wind moving around him and the darkness parting for his path to continue? It’s all about what we are writing.
What the story is.
So my challenge for you is to go through your manuscript while keeping connotation in mind. Maybe just choose one scene for now if you are still working, and look back at it. Are there any sentences that should be in a different order? Are there any words that don’t have a connotation that fits the scene? That give the reader the wrong feeling or the wrong picture? Fix those things. See where it takes your scene. See how much better it makes it. Just be sure not to dissect your whole scene. We always want to keep that original rhythm in it, the style and movement.
And if you are still writing and not editing yet, then maybe you want to try keeping these things in mind when you are trying to get into a scene, or write something that is difficult because you’ve never experienced it and research can only go so far (in theory). By using this little trick, you can make the scene much more real and read a lot easier for your reader.
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Thank you for reading, and don’t stop writing!