In order to make your words come alive on the page it is important to understand how the reader’s mind works. If you understand how the mind processes text, and how it turns words and sentences into images and impressions, you have a tremendously powerful tool to use to your advantage.
What Is Association?
From a psychological perspective, association can be described as follows (from Wikipedia):
Association in psychology refers to a connection between conceptual entities or mental states that results from the similarity between those states or their proximity in space or time.
That’s pretty clear, right? You associate one thing with another because it’s similar, or because it happened at the same time or in the same place – something like that.
When it comes to writing the basic principle is the same, but I like to think about it as the link between a word or a sentence and the image or impression it creates in our mind. I also think there’s a kind of secondary association, for associations between an image in our mind and other images. If the mind is left to wander freely, the associations will chain indefinitely and we’ll end up very far from the words that originally triggered the first image.
To be clear, I should also point out that no two people will associate in the same way. There may be similarities, but it will not be exactly the same. Let’s take an example:
Picture a mountain in your mind. Done? Good, me too.
The peak of my mountain is covered in snow and the sky behind it is clear blue with no cloud in sight. How about yours?
At the foot of my mountain there’s a small village by a little river that runs through the valley between this mountain and the next. How about yours?
It’s not unthinkable that your mountain is similar to mine, but it could also be completely different. I have no way of knowing at all what kind of associations the word mountain will trigger in your mind. However, after my additional comments about my mountain, you probably have fairly decent impression of what the image in my mind looks like.
The key word here is impression. There’s no way you’ll ever know exactly what my mountain looks like, but you have an impression and from that you can create your own version of my image. That’s what association in writing is about, triggering impressions that lets the reader create their own images.
Now, how do we use that in our stories?
Controlling the Reader’s Associations
Let’s not beat around the bush. It’s not possible to predict exactly what your reader’s associations to the words you use will be. What you can do is make an educated guess, and you can add more words to influence the reader in the direction you want – kind of like with the mountain mentioned above.
Another thing you can do is influence your reader’s attitude towards that which you describe, as well as how they feel about it. If your reader has a positive attitude their image will look different than if they have a negative attitude. This is similar to how we often see happy people doing fun things in commercials and advertisements – even if those people and what they do are completely unrelated to what the ad is trying to sell us. There’s no reason you can’t do the same thing in your writing.
In the mountain example above, consider the part about the little river. What if I’d written shallow river, or narrow river? All three words can be used for describing the river. You could even use all of them at once: a little shallow narrow river – but that would sound kind of forced. Depending on which word you use though, your reader’s impression of the river will change, and as a consequence also their impression of the village.
To me, a little river, is positively charged. The word little in this case implies something cute and picturesque. It’s probably a nice village to live in too, with well built, sturdy houses and a cheerful innkeeper with a big round belly.
The next option, a shallow river, is ambiguous, or neutral. Depending on how you frame it, it can be both negatively and positively charged. The shallowness can support that the village sees a lot of trade coming through as it’s easy to cross the river, but it can also support that there’s little trade because few boats are able to navigate the shallow waters. You can go either way.
Using the word shallow spills over into the surrounding landscape though. If the river is shallow it implies that the surrounding area can be sort of flat – or at least not filled with steep jagged cliffs. The banks of the river slope gently down towards it. They may be covered in grass and there may be cows or sheep grazing there. The steeper slopes of the mountain are further away.
Finally, the word narrow will have to exemplify a negatively charged description. A small village by a narrow river. The implication here is one of weakness. It’s a poor, pitiful village. The paint on the houses has long since faded, and the roof of the old church has fallen in. It’s not a nice place.
I think you see where I’m coming from here. Even just one word can change your reader’s attitude toward what you’re describing, so it can pay to be careful with what words you’re using.
However, I’m also cheating in order to drive home that point.
Referring to the river as little doesn’t conjure up an image of a cheerful innkeeper, and calling it narrow doesn’t mean the village is poor. What these words do is support the rest of the description. It makes the reader more inclined to view my little village (see what I did there) in the way I want them to. Their impression of the village becomes closer to what it needs to be for their image of it to match the story I want to tell.
If you want to, as a mental exercise, consider how your impression of the river and the village might have changed if I’d told you that I’d imagined the sky behind the mountain as grey and filled with dark clouds.
Before we move on I’d like to state that the above examples are based on what works for me and on how I write. These exact associations may not work out for you in the same way, but you can still use the same principle in your own description. Just make sure you stay consistent and follow your own intuition. Don’t overthink things too much or you’ll end up with something that will make logical sense but that doesn’t work in practice.
Playing with associations isn’t an exact science – it’s not even science. Go with what feels good.
Creating Your Own Association Links
In the previous section I wrote about how to influence the reader by playing to their existing associations. That’s not the only way to use the power of association in writing though. You can also write your story in such a way that your readers create their own association links within your story.
It’s time for me to mention Pavlov’s Dog. In case you haven’t heard of it, here’s a short summary of the concept:
Whenever Pavlov fed his dog he also rang a bell. Eventually, the dog began to salivate as soon as the bell rang as it closely associated it with foo – even if no food was actually about to be served.
You can apply the same principle in your writing. Describe one thing at the same time as something else, and if you do it often enough your reader will begin to associate the one thing with the other. You can then omit one or the other, or intentionally counteract it, in order to achieve a certain effect.
Let’s say you’re writing a story about a young kid. Everyone calls him Rob, even his parents. Rob’s a nice kid, but sometimes he gets in trouble – without even meaning to. When Rob’s in trouble his father refers to him by his full given name, Roberth.
Now, let’s say Rob did something bad, but his dad has not yet found out. As long as the father keeps saying Rob to his son, we know he hasn’t found out, but as soon as this changes and the father uses Roberth instead of Rob, we know there’s trouble.
We can establish similar habits in order to identify characters in other ways. In a story I’m working on there’s a character named Rolf who like to use the phrase my friend whenever he refers to the main character. For example:
“Hello there, my friend,” said Rolf.
“Enar, my friend, how are you doing?” said Rolf.
Rolf has a lot to say and he’s often part of the conversation. He’s also the only character in the story who uses my friend as a way of addressing anyone. A consequence of this is that once the reader gets used to it, I don’t need to use speech tags for Rolf in the same way I would for other characters. I can just include my friend as part of what he says and my reader will associate it with him and assume it’s he who’s speaking.
When doing this, make sure to also show that other characters are not using the same phrase. I tried this approach in another story, but as the cast of characters was quite small, my readers did not pick up on how only one character used a certain phrase.
Basically, use repetition to create a link between two different concepts in your story, like a character and some habit of theirs. You can then use the habit as an identifier of the character, or the other way around, if applicable.
There’s one other thing you can use it for as well that may be even more powerful. You can let a character deviate from their established habit in order to tip the reader off to how something isn’t quite right. It can be something obvious like how Rob’s dad suddenly calls him Roberth, or it could be something more subtle like how someone who’s always wearing a hat suddenly feels the wind in their hair – and what would that mean?
Establish a pattern, and then change it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the article, and that it’s given you something to ponder. To end with I’ve got a few questions for you:
I think I made it pretty clear that we can’t predict someone’s associations accurately. I do think we can influence our readers and their attitudes though. What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree?
How much attention do you pay to associations in your own writing? Have you set up habits or catch phrases for your characters, and how did it work out for you?
Do you have any other thoughts or questions? Feel free to ask the in the comments below, and I’ll try my best to answer.