So you wanna set the mood, baby? Part 2

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Why don’t you have another glass of wine, mm? I’ll light these candles. Because we’re all about mood again today, angel pants. Awwww yeah.

Last time we got together, we talked about the role played by setting in determining mood. In a way, setting is the easiest of these techniques to use — the most common sense. But today we’re talking diction, and that’s a bit trickier.  

At the most basic level, diction is word choice. Sounds simple, but that’s deceptive, I’m afraid. No less a writer than Mark Twain pointed out, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Because language is powerful, y’all. Even at the level of the individual words that are a writer’s building blocks.

One way to choose your best possible blocks is to know the difference between denotative and connotative meaning.

In case you’re a little rusty on your seventh grade English, let me refresh those synapses for you. The denotative meaning of a word is its strictest definition. Have you ever been in a discussion with someone and they get all weird and pedantic and say, “Well, actually the dictionary says…” and your eyes sort of glaze over and you phase out of the conversation because, wow, not the point at all, yo? Yeah. That’s the denotative meaning.

But language is slippery and wild and difficult to contain, and as a result many words have a connotative meaning as well. That’s the whole big hazy mess of associations and feelings and traditional implications that surround the word.

My favorite example? Grotesque.

Such a great word. Oh, man. Look at it. All round on the ends with pointy bits in the middle. Mmm. Guess what the denotative meaning is? (Well, we’ve got a few. As a noun, it means one of those gargoyle-lookin’ statues that isn’t a gargoyle because it doesn’t have a water spout in it, part of a medieval art style where bits of one sort of thing are crammed onto another sort of thing to look unnatural.)

As an adjective, grotesque just means weirdly shaped, or strange, or bizarre.

Now let’s get into that connotative mess. Because it is a mess. In modern usage grotesque implies gross and bad and wrong and dude get that thing away from me. Quasimodo is grotesque. Eating kittens is grotesque. Loads of the stuff they somehow get away with showing on network TV on Hannibal is grotesque.

To see these concepts in action, compare these two sentences: “They erected their tent in the meadow,” vs. “They erected their pavilion in the meadow.”

Technically? A pavilion is just a type of tent. But it connotatively means fancy tent for partying.

See? Denotation, connotation.

You have other tools, too! A harsh word like shred means something different from a mellow word like separate — that shr noise has a different sonic and visual impact. And what about word length? Lots of short, fast words in a row as opposed to lingering and mellifluous vocabulary decisions?

Yeah, you get it. Words. Great stuff, right? So go forth and choose great words. Set your mood, babe. We’ll talk tone next time.

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One response to “So you wanna set the mood, baby? Part 2

  1. Pingback: So you wanna set the mood, baby? Part 3 | Storytelling for Success

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