Updated: Jan 7, 2022
What happens when we read, and how can we use this to make our writing more engaging?
Cognitive science tells us that, as we read a sentence or a phrase, our eyes will backtrack ever so slightly to affirm that what we read at the outset matches what we conclude at the end.
We all know that the meaning of any word is context-based. Words have so many meanings or ways in which their broadness might be narrowed. Even a simple word like “take” can be used literally, as in “take the banana, now!” or metaphorically, “take my friend, Jake, for example.” We don’t literally grab Jake and run with him — not in the way we might take a banana and run with it. And when we’re told to “run with something,” well, sometimes what’s meant isn’t, “get your legs in action and move,” but “bring this idea into reality — or use it effectively.”
So, I want you to take this simple piece of information and run with it. And here’s how.
For the most part, we want our reading experience to go smoothly. We want to be able to comprehend without having to do a double-take. Have you ever read a sentence that was awkwardly worded and you needed to re-read it quickly in order to comprehend it? It happens often enough. Whether it’s a news item, a story, or a research paper, from time to time we come across odd expressions or clunky phrasings that give us pause. If it happens too often, reading becomes a chore and most of us will give up on the book or story. So making sure that you use words in conventional ways, for the most part, will give your readers a smooth ride. Ensuring that grammar, syntax, and punctuation are working well, will do this too. You want everything running smoothly... that is, until you don’t.
There are times when, as a writer, you want to wake the reader up or get them to notice something in a subtle or not so subtle way. If you’re writing a thriller, for example, you’ll need to prime the reader for the outcome along the way. You need to sow the seeds of the outcome along the path that takes the reader there. So, sometimes, creating a sentence that has something slightly askew (as in, out of the ordinary) can help you achieve this. This is where metaphor and other forms of poetic speech can help.
My earlier post about great opening lines demonstrates this point. Memorable opening lines ease the reader into an ordinary enough situation before unsettling their expectations about that ordinariness. Here, the opening to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep gives us more examples of this, and offers other ways to introduce this element and keep readers interested:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
I’ve highlighted the words and phrases that jumped out at me and told me that the speaker is no ordinary kind of person. It begins with this idea of rain being hard. Yes, rain can fall heavily. But to describe it as having “a look” of being “hard” seems to imply agency. It’s the way we’d talk about a person — they had a hard look about them. Then, immediately following this is the softness of that colour, “powder-blue” — and in a man’s suit. Men’s suits are tailored and are designed to give a firm impression of business-mindedness. Powder-blue unsettles that (of course, designers love doing this sort of thing). On top of this, there’s the fastidiousness of his detailing everything he’s wearing, and the fact that he’s sober (which suggests that it’s an unusual circumstance).
So Chandler uses metaphor and softer words where harder and firmer language might be expected. Overall, Chandler’s Marlowe is the kind of man usually described as being “a man of few words.” And he is when he speaks in dialogue in this novel. Yet, here he is rambling to the reader about what he’s wearing — though he’s rambling in a way that is pithy and poetic by turns.
The takeaway here is:
To begin with — to get your writing up to speed — focus on writing clearly and avoid confusing the reader with words that don’t quite match the situation.
When you’re ready to grab their attention (opening paragraphs are usually written later in a project), try mixing things up a bit. Try looking for ways to convey your character’s (or the situation's) complexity through simple language by matching soft words with hard topics and hard words with softer things like water or rain, as Chandler does here — or another similar strategy (you don't have to do exactly as Chandler does).
That’s a good place to start if you’re new to writing. If you’re already using language in this way but finding that your readers aren’t quite connecting, try cutting out some of the poetic language and leave only the phrases that are the most apt, exquisite, or poignant. Less is more, as they say.