Writing Reality: Connotation and Denotation (AKA was that Really what you meant?)

23/09/2013 at 05:45 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Have you ever handed your writing to a beta reader, and – despite careful editing – been rewarded with an interpretative summary completely off-kilter with the intended message?

This might be clear in your own mind. Your characters know one another as well as you do their credentials, innermost fears and hatred of broccoli. A setting could be a photographic copy of real-time surroundings, or indeed, drawn from an image pulled off the Internet and studied for every nuance, to try and capture its spirit in words.

But what if the word choices were wrong, when placed in context?

This may come across as a little blunt, but what you see, feel, emote etc for everything you write, is your own business until it’s shared. The audience comes fresh to the scene. They haven’t been with you on field research, haven’t sat with their elbows propped at the bar while you earwigged on dialogue-drops. Most pertinently, they haven’t broken sweat and maybe tears for your characters, known their foibles and lusts as you do. It’s your responsibility, as a writer, to give them the means of approaching and accepting your literary universe. Their suspension of disbelief is in your hands, and the tools to make it happen are of of course your words – more specifically, the choices you make when stringing them together.

This is where Semiotics are involved – and if that’s technical gubbins to you, bear with me. It’s important stuff where linguistics are concerned.

Semiotics “is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign … the study not only of what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, but of anything which ‘stands for’ something else. In a semiotic sense, signs take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects.”
The site highlighted (Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler) is top-notch if you’re looking to take things further than this article. It elaborates on the many technical structures that literature/linguistics are built upon. We’re going to focus on word meanings and associations, otherwise known as connotation and denotation.

This is a mnemonic taught to my Media studies class in school, by one exasperated but canny teacher:

“Connotations connect and create
Denotations define and dictate”

Put simply, Denotation is the literal definition of a word. The dictionary pull-out. It’s about as plain as it’s going to get, the reality of fact. It’s one side of the coin, while its flip – Connotation – is the projector of image(s) via “socio-cultural and ‘personal’ associations (ideological, emotional etc)… typically related to the interpreter’s class, age, gender, ethnicity and so on.” In essence, what an individual / audience takes away from what the creator gives, as referenced in this article of Show and Tell.

There’s an overlap between perceived Intentional meaning and perceived Personal inflection. This is art in its purest form, the interaction of concepts. But if the Creator’s angle was off in the telling, the correspondence goes awry. A scene intended to be frightening can at best fall flat, at worst seem unintentionally funny. You may not have wished a character to be aligned with demons or perceived to have a demonic nature, no matter how antagonistic their actions – but if you’re going to use words like “devilish smile” and “forked tongue” in their narrative, don’t be surprised if the afore-mentioned images are invoked in the minds of at least some of your audience. Likewise, a character may take on accidental predatory connotations if described or aligned with words of this nature – “Alpha”, “wolfish”, “stalked towards.” A positive/beautiful setting may become subverted if the sky’s compared to wallpaper paste, the grass to barbed wire.

Studying adverts is a great way to gain a handle on Connotation and Denotation. The company is not only looking to inform the audience about their product – its specifications, the plain facts – they’re looking to sell the product, or more specifically, the projected image. This means persuasive and/or figurative language; linking one concept to another at whipcrack speed, so the audience is absorbing and computing at a subconscious level. It’s only when the ad is slowed down and carefully studied, that the methods used reveal their truths.

Notice the repetition of the word “car” – a key persuasive trigger, ingraining the denotative message in the minds of the audience, while the connotative overlay gets to work.
Other words appear. Nuts, bolts, leather, cogs, steel, wood, glass. All pretty dull on their own, but when set to the beautiful images appearing onscreen, their respective meanings are enhanced. They become abstract concepts, shining metal, a vibrant night-drive through woodland, sumptuous skeins of material, unfolding blankets of light; the darkest pools, so gorgeously thick you can almost taste the toxic beauty. They become, in and of themselves, important. Their purpose is full of clarity, linking one image to another – safety, comfort, intelligence, durability, style, class. Above all – every small piece, making up the whole. Every one word, forming an appealing message in the mind of the audience. A persuasive package, tied up in a clever bow of simple words juxtaposed with carefully-chosen images.

Your writing intends to do the same – to sell images, to persuade the audience to believe in the construct. The projected images may not all be pleasant ones, but they’re required to convince just the same. Your word-choices need careful consideration to gain the effect, and with minimal fuss. This is where context comes into play.

It still staggers me how often a company can shoot itself in the foot with its choice of brand name. I’ll paraphrase a few to give a general idea, and hopefully avoid lawsuits.

– “Mud Pie Pottery” – OK, kudos to them for the rhythmic alliteration of P’s. That’s memorable. But so too is the sticky, messy image of playing in the mud as a kid (or indeed, cleaning up after your own.) The splattergram-image might work for a play area, but in the context of trying to sell fine ceramics and pottery, it doesn’t quite fit the bill. The connotations of “mud pie” are child-associative at best, crude and amateur at worst. Not a great start for sales.

– “Blurred Lines Printing” – Though their precision and output might be admirable, the company’s name is a let-down in terms of public image, simply from a lack of context-consideration. It’s only on a subconscious level, might not even take the form of a thought, so much as a feeling of wariness in the audience. One linked image to another, through the connotation —> context of blurred and printing.

Used carefully, a juxtaposition of positive/negative connotations can actually progress narrative, and inform characterization. Anne McCaffrey’s sci-fi novel The Rowan tells the story of a young woman born with inherent psychological powers (telekinesis/telepathy, among others.) As the sole survivor of a landslip in her home-territory, Rowan – aged three – is taken on as a Ward of the Planet.

‘”You’ve done marvels with her, Lusena,” Interior said warmly. “You’ll find a tangible reward from the Council when you’ve delivered her safely to Earth.”
“She’s a taking little thing, really,” Lusena said, smiling with affection.
“A bit odd-looking with that whitened hair and those enormous brown eyes in that thin face,” and the Medic looked uncomfortable.
Gorgeous eyes, lovely features,” Interior said hastily to cancel Lusena’s dismay at the Medic’s blunt description.’ – pg 29, The Rowan, Anne McCaffrey

Odd-looking, whitened, enormous, thin. None of these words are particularly positive when strung together in a description of the child. The Medic might have taken a more tactful (and positive) view with words like “striking”, “pale/snowy hair”, “large/luminous eyes”, “small/slim face.” Instead, the connotations of the words chosen create a projected image through his perspective, of a strange-looking little girl who has an unnerving effect on him. This is a Show of characterization in the scene; clearly, Rowan has got under the skin of the Medic (backed up by the Tell of his looking “uncomfortable.”)

Interior’s swift annulment of the Medic’s negative assessment – with far more positive-connotative words gorgeous and lovely – Shows the audience that the former has a high empathy and consideration for Lusena’s “dismay”; it also exposes the Medic’s tactlessness in the narrative. This is emphasized when set in the context of Rowan’s predicament as a small orphaned child, as well as her obvious inability to change how she looks. There is also her primary carer Lusena’s previous comment, of being quite taken with her, to consider.

It’s worth considering narrative voice when it comes to choice of words. In third person-omnipresent, the voice is yours as the author; whatever descriptions are laid down, are assumed to be your opinion. When placed through the filter of a character – over shoulder or first person – the perspective switches, and immediately assumptions are made on the part of the audience, everything from the character’s intelligence to their ethos, their feelings about others, experience of settings etc. Consider carefully – what is the primary message of the scene you’re creating? What is the subtext, if any, beneath dialogue; and can context itself manipulate the connotations of words uttered?

“‘Let’s take our good host here. What is he? He is a gentleman… A classic English gentleman. Decent, honest, well-meaning. But his lordship here is an amateur.” He paused at the word and looked around the table. “He is an amateur and international affairs today are no longer for gentleman amateurs.”‘ pg 106, “The Remains of the Day,” Kazuo Ishiguro

As adjective or noun, amateur is defined as “engaging or engaged in without payment; non-professional / a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid basis.” So far, so neutral. But placed in the context of world affairs, as delivered in the dialogue of Senator Lewis – attending a conference at Darlington Hall during the run-up to WWII – and the message becomes one of quiet desperation, frustration and scorn.

Decent, honest, well-meaning – all work to present the sign of Lord Darlington being a “classic English gentleman”, until amateur is put into the mix. Synonyms range from casual participant to dabbler to novice; none of which are particularly abrasive when stood alone. But filtered through context – the severity of the situation – and when aligned with more negative-connotative words like hog-wash and meddle, a pejorative anchor is laid on these positive connotations. Their message becomes subverted, implying Darlington and his fellows are only clueless fools, in danger of losing their grip on the situation.

“All you decent, well-meaning gentlemen, let me ask you, have you any idea what sort of place the world is becoming all around you? The days when you could act out of your noble instincts are over… Gentlemen like our good host still believe it’s their business to meddle in matters they don’t understand. So much hog-wash has been spoken here these past two days. Well-meaning, naive hogwash.” – pg 107

Words of authoritative connotation in this context are brought up – world, business, matters. These enhance the impression of there being a higher game at stake than any of the Lords realize.

“You here in Europe need professionals to run your affairs. If you don’t realize that soon you’re headed for disaster.”

Lord Darlington’s response is framed along the same inference-structure (both are far too polite and well bred to delve into crude slanging matches), with connotations turned on their heads when filtered through an individual’s perspective:

“‘What you describe as “amateurism”, sir, is what I think most of us here still prefer to call “honour.’
This brought a loud murmur of assent with several ‘hear, hear’s’ and some applause.
‘It appears to mean getting one’s way by cheating and manipulating. It means ordering one’s priorities according to greed and advantages rather than the desire to see goodness and justice prevail in the world.’ … This was met by the loudest burst of approval yet, followed by warm and sustained applause.” – pg 107

Ishiguro uses applause as a paralinguistic signal of approval, much as the adjective “warm” works to frame the action in connotations of intimacy as well as approval. On a universal-subconscious level, it speaks to our earliest instincts of keeping close to preserve heat. If you were writing a similar scene in which the applause was instead sporadic, insincere, doubtful, what alternative word-choices could you make to draw on the senses, to deliver a negative-connotative message?
* Cold / cool – as of the feelings of the gathering towards the speaker and his opinion; lack of intimacy and unwillingness to engage, to accept the message delivered
* Half-hearted – lacking impetus, enthusiasm, not wishing to engage
* Scattered (especially in a room full of people, where applause from all present would be thick and loud, rolling off the walls, tumultous, energetic … not described with a word that has connotations of being loosely strewn, haphazard, quiet where noise would be preferred.)

Also worth noticing is how Darlington – in a progression of characterization and narrative, showing the now-taut relationship between the two men – turns Lewis’ word “professionalism” back on itself. By juxtaposing it with negative-connotative words like “cheating”, “manipulating” and “greed”, a wholly different meaning is pulled from the Senator’s word, subverting his message. In this case, mimicry is not a positive affirmation, but a riposte.

A single word can have many associative-images when standing alone; imagine its impact when framed in the right context and strung alongside words of equal power and direct meaning. This is particularly important when it comes to paring down your figurative language and imagery, for a smoother reading-experience and more succinct message:

“It was the same looking out; the green-tinted window glass was so old and so thick that everything on the other side seemed like a dream, including the sky and the trees.” – pg 4, “Practical Magic”, Alice Hoffman.

“If only she could believe in love’s salvation, but desire had been ruined for her. She saw craving as obsession, fervor as heated preoccupation.” – pg 31, “Practical Magic”, Alice Hoffman.

If words are an author’s medium – the brushes of their art – then the colours alive within each one are surely the meanings laid upon the canvas, for audience interpretation. Consider your mixtures and blending; all it takes is one poor choice of colour for the image to be spoiled. Your word-choices affect the balance of the overall message, by virtue of association and context.

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