In a prior blog post I shared an experience I had while teaching in University. I was saying all the words to correctly describe the concepts I was supposed to be teaching, but I could tell that none of it was being comprehended. The students could understand every word that I was speaking, just not any of what was actually being said. In that moment I felt that the English language had failed me.
I’ve been on the other end of that experience as well. In my career I’ve received all manner of technical training, and I’ve certainly been guilty of just nodding my head while all of the information goes in one ear and out the other.
As a reader you’ve probably experienced this, too, moments where you read and reread the author’s prose, but just can’t seem to get what it is they are trying to say. In fact, for a writer to communicate their ideas effectively is probably more difficult than with any other communication medium. These efforts to paint worlds with words often requires pushing the boundaries of written languages to their very limits.
For one thing all visuals have been removed from the communication, everything has to be imagined. For another each language has its own blind spots where they lack the words to convey certain thoughts. Then, of course, there is also a strict limitation on the number of words that can be put in a sentence before it falls apart under its own weight.
Finally there is another limitation of words, one which I want to focus on particularly. Words tend to only be useful down to a certain level of detail. They are good at communicating complex associations, but fall apart at the very simple things. As an example, it is easy to describe the wavelength characteristics of light, how they excite photoreceptors in the eye, the electrical signals that are then sent to the brain, and how all of this results in the sensation we call “the color blue.” But now can you tell me what it is actually like to see “the color blue?” Someone that is blind from birth can understand all of the technical details, firing the neurons necessary to stow the data in their brain. But they will never find the words that will fire the other neurons necessary to artificially reproduce the sensation of seeing color.
And yet…sometimes when I read words I do experience a physical sensation. When I read a menu I might salivate over the food being described and seem to taste them already in my mouth. Why is that? It turns out that this occurs when words are used as triggers to access memories in my mind. It’s not that any of the words “grilled shrimp slathered in garlic and butter” are inherently delicious in their composition. Rather it is the the memories those words call up that are delicious.
Think of it this way: the words on the page are the address on the envelope, leading you to the residence of your own memories. In this way any words can could be used to call up any experience, there just has to be an association between them. When my wife and I speak to each other we are able to use a shorthand because we know so well the memories one another holds and the words that will access them. Communication becomes less about what is being said, and more about the experiences that have been shared.
There’s a few important lessons in this for all writers. Let’s take a look at them one-at-a-time.
You Need to Connect)
When Pixar released their film Up they were lauded for their powerful opening montage. In this sequence we are introduced to the main character, Carl and a young girl, Ellie. We then watch the two of them become best friends, fall in love, get married, share a life, and then separate when Ellie passes away. Not only does this provide an emotional journey, but one that is shared between the main character and all of the audience.
From this point on the viewers now share a common language with the story. Everything that follows in the plot will makes perfect sense. We understand why Carl is grumpy, why he is irritated by a young adventure-seeker, why is so reluctant to leave his home. When Carl reacts to events that are happening around him we feel a ripple of that same reaction within ourselves because we remember the same things that he is remembering in that moment. We just get it.
If you want your reader to care about the things that happen in your story, you have to share meaningful experiences with them as soon as possible so that they will relate to the character’s state-of-mind. Then your protagonist and the reader are speaking the same language.
Describing vs Sharing)
But of course, part of using a shared language to connect to a reader is knowing when not to use this trick. In that same film, Up, we are later introduced to the villain, Charles Muntz. From his own lips we learn how he was pushed out from society’s limelight and ridiculed until he became obsessed with a monomaniacal objective. He has his reasons for his disposition, but those reasons are only described to us, not shared first-hand as they were with Carl’s past.
This is not the story being lazy, though, it is actually very clever. This technique means we don’t feel what Charles feels and we easily reject his conclusions. His sob story is supposed to go in one ear and out the other and that’s just what happens. We hear his woes, we don’t care, and we move on.
Why doesn’t the story want us to feel sorry for Charles? Because that would only get in the way of the experience the story wants us to be having in this moment. What the story wants is for us to be sharing in Carl’s sense of betrayal at this discovery. That sensation comes through loud and clear because of how the story has prioritized its communication to us.
Describe an experience when all you need is for people to understand what your character is feeling. Share an experience when you need for people to empathize with what your character is feeling.
New Languages from the Universal)
Of course none of those examples from Up work if people are not first moved by the opening montage. If viewers come away feeling annoyed at Carl and Ellie’s relationship then they really won’t care about Carl’s sadness or sense of betrayal. How is it, then, that the filmmakers managed to get the opening montage to work so well?
For this I’ll go back to my problem as a teaching assistant back in University. Rather than diving straight into the new material, I ought to have first established something common and familiar, something that we all understood equally. That would have put us all on the same page, and on that shared analogy we could have incrementally added all of the new material.
The reason that that opening sequence in Up works so well is because it utilizes universal experiences that almost everyone can relate to. It introduces us to Carl as someone that feels awkward and shy, sensations we’ve all experienced at some point or another. It shows the newly married couple doing all the sorts of mundane household chores, ones that each of us do in our own homes. It explores their desire of wanting great adventure, something that is common to all of humanity. It turns somber when the two learn they cannot have any children, one of the most basic fears in all potential parents. It uses music that swings from bright and playful to slow and somber. All of these things are universally relatable, and so they build that common foundation between character and viewer. All the unique aspects of their relationship that follows extends from common places we all have been.
Not Everyone Will Relate)
But obviously when I say these experiences are “universally relatable,” what I really mean is “mostly universally relatable.” In my previous story post, I wanted to establish a tone that was deep, thoughtful, and introspective. I decided to open on a beach with the rolling waves gliding against the coast. I chose this because this setting generally impresses us with themes of largeness, timelessness, and purposefulness. That makes sense, seeing as waves are big, constant, and follow deliberate motions.
But now suppose there is a reader who primarily associates beaches with their partying years in college. Or they might have suffered some tragedy during a boating accident. For these readers my referencing a coast may end up throwing them far from the intended atmosphere. But then no location is ever going to be 100% effective, is it?
I’m sure there were those that watched the opening montage of Up and did not come away with the intended experience either. One such audience might be the very young who have not yet experienced the full richness of life, or those who just barely lost a spouse and are still so lost in the bitterness that they cannot taste the sweet. The fact is these miscommunications are unavoidable, and the idea is only to minimize them as much as possible.
In general you can achieve better communication with your readers by first using universal concepts to establish a common ground with them. While doing so, allow them to share meaningful experiences alongside of the main characters so that they can relate to their perspectives and understand their later actions. Finally use those moments of connection deliberately, so that you can steer the reader into taking the sides you want them to have.
In my next post I’d like to explore this idea of language within the context of a story itself. I’ll present a main character and two companions for him. One is familiar and seems to speak the same language, another is alien and does not share of his vocabulary. How he communicates with both of these characters will transform through the experiences they share. As such those communications will be stripped of the periphery and pleasantries of idle conversation, and come to be based upon core needs and feelings. Come back on Thursday to see the first portion of this exercise.