Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Serial Position Curve, Part 1

Psychological research shows that when someone is given a list of words to remember they tend to recall best the words that begin and end the list. This suggests one important way that words of power can be used in writing. If we consider a sentence to be a kind of “list” of words, then the opening and ending positions in the sentence are the places to focus our most powerful images. The opening position creates the “primacy” effect while the end position produces the “recency” effect. Because the “primacy” effect is not quite as simple as it seems where writing is concerned, let’s consider the recency effect in this blog post.

He rode with our enemies on a coal, black horse.

“Horse” is not a bad word for the end, but certainly not the strongest word in the sentence. What about, instead:

He rode with our enemies on a horse as black as coal.

For another example: A blade sheathed in cold copper hung at his belt.

“Belt” is one of the weaker words in this sentence and certainly not a good ender. Instead, how about:

At his belt hung a blade sheathed in cold copper.

This may be something that most everyone here already has a feeling for, but I don't think it hurts to stress it again. It's also pretty much exactly what Candice Proctor was talking about in her “Punch it Up” post, and it’s something we’ve been talking about a lot in our writing group lately. It just took me a while to realize that this is the same basic principle as the “recency” effect in psychology.

Words of power can best work their magic on the minds of your readers when they are in positions of power. One such position is found at the end of a sentence or paragraph.


Bernita said...

I largely agree. This is an important technique and one well worth cultivating.
For those of us who read in blocks the position doesn't matter so much - as long as all the descriptive words are strong as in your examples.
The end of the paragraph is more effective to us than the individual sentences.
For those readers who may be inclined to focus on individual words, however, the choice would be remarkably effective.
I wonder though if words ending with soft consonants and unaccented syllables are as an effective word period as ones with a hard punch, and with that in mind I rather prefer "belt."

Charles Gramlich said...

Good point, Bernita. For me, "belt" tends to produce mundane images, though, of an actual belt for one's pants. "Copper" has a more exotic set of images attached to it, for me, and also just sounds better.

SQT said...

Oh boy. I just can't imagine writing something novel length and trying to keep this in mind the whole time. I'm too much of an A-type personality. I think I'd be really neurotic about it if I felt like it was a rule I had to follow.

I'm over-thinking this already. I can just feel it.

Lisa said...

I love this idea and I think the reinforcement of it is important. At this stage, I tend to zoom in from the larger picture and move from how the chapter begins and ends, to how scenes begin and end and then if I'm editing closely enough, I can get to the paragraph level. I can see really working this at the sentence level during the polishing stages. I am a huge believer though in the primary message all of your recent posts have carried -- with regard to the difference a word can make. Great post Charles!

Shauna Roberts said...

This is one of those important rules I'm always forgetting. Thanks for the reminder and for the examples of sentences and how they could be improved.

SzélsőFa said...

what an interesting point, Charles. I have never thought about worrying about word order, as long as the sentence is grammatically correct, that is. But this entry here made me think twice.

Travis Erwin said...

Your posts continue to make me ponder how little I actually know about writing. I need all the help I can get.

AvDB said...

I've actually become much more aware of this since Candice's post (thanks, Candice). I'm currently tweaking the final draft of a one-page synopsis a certain agent requests in his submission requirements, and I'm concentrating on making each sentence as eye-catching as possible, using Candice's (and now, your) advice.

By the way, Charles, have I told you how much I like coming here? You always have such good posts.

Steve Malley said...

I actually use this structure, large and small: sentence, paragraph, chapter. One sharp hit, a flurry of blows, a final hit.

I would likely use the sword as a chance to get at character:

A blade hung at her side. It was oiled and heavy and wicked. The sheath was copper, battered and stained.

Ten seconds' first draft, but the structure's there. 'Blade' up front, where it catches the eye. A little passage to move the reader along, and a nice, strong word to go out on. That's the paragraph.

The sentences go the same way. In that little 3-tap on the blade, 'oiled' and 'wicked' flank their weaker brother 'heavy' for a reason. Likewise, 'battered' was a weaker word to go out on than 'stained'...

And since I'm trying to get at this swordswoman's character, I chose to describe blade and scabbard (and by inference, her) in a way that'd show experience, competence, a lack of concern with appearances, and sense of waiting danger.

And of course, there's the musicality of the words, but this is already turning into a blog post more than a blog comment!


Ello - Ellen Oh said...

THis is intriguing but I agree with sqt in thinking this is alot to remember for someone like me who is just trying to write the whole thing. Perhaps these are the points we have to remember during editing.

writtenwyrdd said...

Very good point to mention. I was aware of this psychological trend, but it is only obvious as applicable to writing if you think about it.

Probably most of us do this instinctively; but it's good to spell out the whys and wherefores. Thanks!

In terms of bernita's question, though, I would have to observe that sound and meaning works together, but a sentence ending with a soft word for a hard concept probably isn't as effective. Or so I guess.

I think that writers don't have to worry about this in early drafts, though. Save it for final edits or you'll drive yourself crazy.

Angie said...

Humm, interesting. [ponder] Now that I think about it, I do things like this just by ear, as most of us probably do, but it's always better to be aware of what you're doing and why. Good post, thanks.

Angie, still thinking

Lucas Pederson said...

This makes perfect sense, buddy! Great advice!
I will now have to look closer at what I write. There are so many tricks out there it's hard to keep them all in focus either while one is writing or while one is editing one's work. It's tough, but needs to be present at some point during the working of a project.
Thanks for this!

Charles Gramlich said...

SQT, the importance of it, mostly, is to just sit in the back of your mind and at some point it will become unconscious. Some conscious use of it during the revising process could help but of course it's not as important as overall story.

Lisa, that sounds like a good approach to take and is pretty much what I do.

Shauna, it helps me to think about it consciously when I'm not writing, so that it becomes more unconscious when I do.

Szelsofa, I think it helps.

Travis, I don't think any of us know very much. We feel more than we know.

Avery, thanks for the nice compliment on my blog. I appreciate it. :)

Steve, definetely something worth a blog post itself on. I'd like to hear more about the "3 tap." I think I understand it but I'd love to see more. Great paragraph, btw. Nicely done.

Ello, Writtenwyrd, I think you're both right in that it's most important to think of during the edit stage. My comment to SQT says a bit more on that.

Angie, yes, I think the 'ear," developed from years of reading, perhaps, is critical.

Lucas, Yes, it's a matter of awareness, I think. Even if it starts as mostly a dim awareness of it. A story might work perfectly fine without it, but it's still a nice touch.