what is synesthesia?
Synesthesia: a blend of sensory details that creates concrete images for your readers
Fiction writers are both artists and craftspersons. To practice our craft, we need to be familiar with our tools and study others’ processes, methods, and polished work.
That’s what this series on Red Wolf Editorial is all about. We’ll pick an individual tool—or group of tools—and discuss what using them can add to our craft.
In this post, we look at a passage from Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood and examine her precise use of figurative language, specifically synesthesia, and the effect it has on readers.
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a foundation in figurative language
Let’s start with a cliché, shall we?
Show don’t tell.
It’s one of those oft-heard “guidelines” that tends to need retooling—or at least personalizing—itself.
When put to its best use, this particular rule/suggestion encourages us to immerse readers in our fiction so that they can experience the sensory landscape of a character—they feel what our protagonist feels, whether it’s silk against skin or the wrenching pain, discomfort, and oddity of hitting our funny bone on an armrest.
But in this immersive atmosphere, readers also smell what our protagonist smells, hear what she hears, taste what she tastes, and see what she sees.
This tool, as you likely already know, is called figurative language.
Figurative language is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled writer. Beneath the tapping of our fingers (or dictation of our voice), we can literally transport someone from their lived bodily experience into a fantastical environment of magic and adventure—all by using precise details and descriptions of the world around our protagonist.
let’s build from there
Synesthesia is more complex than most instances of figurative language because we are mixing multiple senses together. I’m going to advise that we stick with mixing two at a time and not more, though I would love to hear any examples you come across that dare to go further! Please share them in the comments below!
Remember, our primary goal is increasing the impact and vividness of our language so as to be more engaging and visceral for our readers.
So we’re not mixing willy-nilly. After all, when you rub all the finger-paints together, they look more like brown goo than a mystical fairy forest.
But, with a careful hand, mixing sensory details can enhance the vividness of the feeling or experience we’re trying to describe.
and look at an example
I got the idea for this post as I devoured the wonderfulness that is Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, which I will also discuss in our soon-to-come post on figurative language. To me, this novel is critical reading for fantasy authors for her descriptive work alone (plus, the protagonist has a sharp, distinctive voice and a perspective I truly enjoyed).
Albert keeps a tight grip on her descriptive prose and doesn’t sacrifice the novel’s pacing or thrill for flowery description. (I’m not trying to say that you have to exactly mimic this in your own prose, and of course it’s important to vary our pacing.) The narrator snatches each image as it goes by and pins it to the wall of our mind’s eye, vividly cataloged and described, before allowing it to fly free once more.
Quick reminder: the word “image” when we’re talking about figurative language is not necessarily a visual stimulus—it could just as easily be a trigger from one of our other senses.
our close reading quote
“Her Hinterland accent was clipped and compelling. It made me think of the dark shapes of icebergs, the light of a cold white sun.”The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert
First, let’s look at sentence #1 to see why we need a concrete description here.
Context: Alice, the protagonist, has recently landed in the fairy tale world of her birth/creation, and she often notes the unique accent of this dark folkloric space.
Point of interest: Accents can be difficult to describe, especially for fantasy authors who aren’t using the “real-world” setting their readers live in every day. And even though this novel begins in New York, here, Albert resists an easy analog example from earth and instead relies on her trusty figurative language tool belt.
An accent being clipped gives us a relatively concrete idea—we can imagine something being cut off, stopped short, snipped. For me personally, I imagine this happening at the end of the words, where the d in clipped, in the voice being described, might sound more like a sharp t.
But let’s move on to the second adjective in that sentence. Compelling.
This is the one bearing the emotional weight—why does our character want to listen to this person? Why does she choose to trust them? What about them is sucking her in?
However, readers need a concrete description of this effect in order to be able to internalize it, to feel compelled ourselves. Being compelled is a sense, a feeling, and this makes it much more subjective than the deeply specific details that inspire universal relatability and believability in a character.
It made me think of the dark shapes of icebergs, the light of a cold white sun.”THE HAZEL WOOD, BY MELISSA ALBERT
Ah ha! This sentence tells us several really important details about why Alice—and Alice alone—finds this aspect of the speaker’s voice compelling.
What are the things that compel you? What do you feel yourself drawn toward? Is it the bright and slightly burnt aroma of coffee, the golden glow of a lone light in the darkness, the fuzzy squint of your dog’s brown eyes after he’s been dripped on in the rain?
These first two, at least, are relatively universal, and yet they’re both about heat, light, and warmth—the exact opposite of what Alice feels pulled toward in this instance.
Albert conjures an image of an iceberg floating along a polar sea—89% of its mass drifting dangerously beneath the surface, unseen. It shimmers in the dark, like sweat, or a jewel. To quote Frozen: “beautiful, powerful, dangerous, cold.”
Here’s where synesthesia comes in: Alice names the color and shape of an iceberg, not its feeling. She focuses on the visual nature of it.
If you’ve read Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, there’s an impossibly beautiful chapter about the otherworldly blue of the compressed, deep time ice of icebergs.
This is very different from that description. We’re not looking at an iceberg during the day, blazing white against the sun. It’s night. And the hulking shape is inching along—unstoppable, immense, and (at least in my imagination) jagged.
To review: in literature, synesthesia refers to a blending of senses. In each of these two instances, we have a visual stimulus mixing together with a touch-based stimulus to bring out a third, clearer conclusion about what is compelling the character.
our second image
Let’s look at the second of the two image pairs:
“…the light of a cold white sun.”THE HAZEL WOOD, BY MELISSA ALBERT
One of these details ought to be surprising when we think of the sun…
It’s nearly always associated with light. We can readily imagine that being a white light, one so bright we have to squint against it and even then, a headache is only a half-step behind.
But we don’t often think of the sun as cold, especially all by itself.
Cold white moon, maybe, but the sun?
Synesthesia is something we use in our day-to-day language, and I’m certain you can easily think of instances of talking about cold light.
But we don’t just have synesthesia at work here alone as Albert twirls multiple tools through her fingertips and whirls paints across her canvas. We have a layered metaphor, with one image directly and immediately juxtaposed over the other. And this, coincidentally, strengthens the blended senses all the more.
bringing it all together
In our first image—the darkness of the icebergs’ shapes—we have a frigid, touch-based stimulus upended by the visual stimulus of the cold white sun.
Anything that would normally be bright in this passage—like the iceberg shimmering in the sun—is overturned.
Alice selects these images because they’re dark (and cold).
This, as you might have guessed, tells us a lot about our protagonist.
Then, as readers reel away from this surprising description toward a familiar visual and physical stimulus—the light of the sun—we instantly lose half of what we associate with it. The sun is bright, white—which strikes us as potentially odd, and cold.
Alice’s description tweaks its visual nature and negates its physical sensation.
using the tool
As writers, I think it’s so important for us to remember both the craft and art of fiction. Depending on your writing style, figurative language may come easily to you. For others, you may struggle.
But, almost universally, we can practice being more concrete, more visceral, and that’s what this study of writers’s tools—in this case figurative language and synesthesia—is all about.
I hope you enjoyed this post! Please share any thoughts or questions you have in the comments below.
I’d also like to encourage you to pay close attention to the mixing of senses in your natural speech as well as in what you read. What does it add to our language? What does it tell readers about your protagonist?
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