What is in a name? A Rosa Indica by any other nomenclature reeks as sacchariferous…doesn’t it?
Not in a book, it doesn’t. A rose by any other name smells as sweet sounds a lot sweeter than the above rendition put together with synonyms. The denotation of the words, the dictionary definition, is close enough between the two that all substitutions either have the same dictionary definition or are listed in the thesaurus as synonyms. So why do the two lines feel so different?
Writing is an artificial means of creating something tangible within our minds. The only tools authors have to reach into the minds of the readers are words and their conveyance. But to tell a story is not merely to depict a map of places, a timeline of events, and a phenotype of characters. The heart of a story is to convey an emotional experience to the reader. This is where denotation can fall short of the task.
Enter connotation. Connotation is the baggage that many words carry that you usually won’t find in a dictionary. Words gather associations over time and across different cultures. Take an apple for instance. Strictly speaking, a fruit that evokes little emotion in me when I pick one up at the supermarket. But pair it with the word Big, and now we have an exciting metropolis. Or paint it multicolored stripes, and we think computer. Or put it next to a snake, and we conjure temptation in out minds. The apple hasn’t changed, just how you relate to it.
The same thing can be done with just about any word. For instance consider the meaning of these five sentences:
The clouds moved across the sky
The clouds floated across the sky
The clouds lazed across the sky
The clouds raced across the sky
The clouds roiled across the sky
Do you feel a different relationship to the sentences? Do you picture fluffy white clouds piled high on a warm sunny day for floated and lazed? Do you see a blustery day for raced? For roiled, are the clouds dark and threatening? Is a storm is coming?
And yet each entry is in essence the same as the first, moved. What has changed is our emotional connection to each sentence. This is because, through their use, words collect meanings that they did not originally have, and using a word with the right meaning and background for the tone of your situation enhances the emotion.
This emotional connection is the heart of engaging a reader, and connotation is a powerful tool to do that.