An experience most of us are familiar with: You’ve just bought something new, whether it be a car, a backpack, a sports jersey with a particular player’s number, or even a new brand of reading glasses, and though you found it independently and thought it was fairly unique at the time, now you’re seeing it everywhere.
Has everyone else decided to buy this thing at the same time as you? Hive mind? Have you prompted a rash of popularity? No, of course not. It’s simply that now that you’ve taken particular notice of this item, your mind is primed for it. Had you bought a different car make or a different jersey number, that’s the item you’d be noticing all over the place. The item hasn’t become more prevalent; you’ve simply become more predisposed to notice it.
In a study called “Disgust, creatureliness and the accessibility of death-related thoughts,” by Cathy R. Cox, Jamie L. Goldenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and David Weise, experimenters found that people primed with disgusting pictures were more likely to draw upon death-related thoughts than participants primed by neutral pictures. For example, those first shown images of a bloody finger and a dirty toilet were more likely to finish the words SK_ _ _ and COFF_ _ as SKULL and COFFIN than those shown images of a book and a chair, who were more likely to finish them as SKILL and COFFEE. In other words, disgusting images prompt thoughts of death, which causes people to more readily fill in the blanks with death-related ideas.
Intriguing connection between death and disgust aside (horror writers, meet me in the comments!) (for the interested, the nonfiction book That’s Disgusting by Rachel Herz is a nice starting place), this outcome seems to enforce the instinctual knowledge most people have: that our thoughts can be guided or prompted by specific images, words, and associations. I think of these things as “thought triggers.” How, then, can writers use this quirk of the human brain to our advantage, and can it ever become a detriment to our work?
Quite simply, choosing our words strategically can set the reader in the right frame of mind for where we want to go (or even the intentionally wrong one, in the case of a red herring or plot twist). If I read the descriptor “blood red,” I’m primed for a different set of events than if I read “cherry red.” Smart choices save space. I don’t necessarily need to be told that the new guy gives the protagonist an uneasy feeling. If I want to plant the seed that a character might be a bad guy, his eyes aren’t “sky blue”; they’re “icy blue.” Cold, not pretty. If I want someone to be a possible ally, maybe her brown eyes are “warm” rather than “muddy.” It might sound simple when stated this way, but it’s ultimately the most important tool a writer has: words.
Every word we choose conveys something, so we must choose them carefully and with intention. Great authors master many different things – emotional arcs, beauty, pacing, depth, vividness – but all of it is done utilizing well-chosen words. This is why, when an author is a master, we can study the text over and over, looking closely. Because when we slow down and zoom in, we learn more each time. It’s why I was able to pull apart Wuthering Heights and reasonably support my theory that Emily Brontë intentionally made Cathy and Heathcliff vampiric. Because when someone as good as the Brontës uses the word “vampire” in her novel, it’s not an accident; it’s a thought trigger.
Just as highly skilled authors can prompt hints, tones, emotions, impressions, and associations with well-chosen words, careless writers can throw us off by doing so accidentally. Readers are very intuitive, even if we don’t mean to be. Our brains are pattern-seeking, drawing subconscious connections like a conspiracy theorist mapping out plots with red thread on a basement wall. Sometimes we’ll see things even if they’re not there. When that happens too often as readers, we tend to become annoyed. The prose may seem random, sloppy, and disjointed, even if we can’t put our finger on why. We might have an unfulfilled sense of foreboding simply because a house was described as looming, for example. And while an unfulfilled sense of foreboding might be a benefit in some genres, in others it might be an accident and distraction.
This is by no means a new concept. Wikipedia defines “Chekhov’s gun” as: “a dramatic principle that every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary and irreplaceable, and any that are not should be removed.” It comes from Anton Chekhov, and his advice: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
I would take this even further and say remove every distinctly flavored word in fiction that has no goal. While some words are common enough to be close to neutral, others stand out like little red pins in the reader’s mind-map. We mark them, thinking we’ll come back to this later. If we don’t, we’ve stored the wrong information (wasted a pin, if you will). So not only should we not describe the rifle unless it serves a purpose (to be fired later, yes, absolutely, but also perhaps deepening a character history, setting a distinct tone, etc.), we should choose words to describe it that serve a distinct purpose. Is it gleaming? Crooked? Precarious? Rusted? The gun matters, but so do the words used to tell it. Even the distinctions between gun, firearm, rifle, and weapon changes meaning, feeds us data.
The surprising power of thought triggers is both good and bad news for writers. On one hand, that’s a tall order, isn’t it? That every single word we use must matter. And I’ll soften that a tad, to be realistic, by adding that not all words carry equal weight in the mind, and that the longer the work the less weight each word inherently holds. In a poem even the articles matter a great deal. In a novel, the heavier hitters should be the focus of intention. Still, artistry on the level of individual words may feel like a burden when we’re already juggling so many skills.
On the other hand, the good news is that we, as the writer, are the sole proprietors of this power. With a single word choice we have the ability to set a reader’s mind in the mood we want, to foreshadow a powerful event, to convey hidden meaning, to surprise, unsettle, or delight. And at the end of the day, isn’t that kind of awesome? Even if we have to work for it, this is an ability very close to magic – but it’s magic we can learn and practice. It’s the magic that makes up our craft, and that’s worth paying attention to no matter how intricate the effort.
When was the last time you stopped to think about the associations individual words in your writing might trigger? Have you experienced this as a reader, either as great skill or great nuisance?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!