By H. P. Oliver

Have you ever watched a paint artist at work? It's fascinating! What always amazes me is how quickly the painter's palette becomes a rainbow of hues, each carefully blended to exactly the right shade for one tiny spot on the canvas.

When you think about it, what we as fiction writers do isn't all that different from what paint artists do, except we paint our pictures with words to be seen by a reader's mind rather than their eyes. And we writers also use palettes to carefully blend exactly the right shade for each of the thousands of words that will make up our finished manuscript.

I like to think of the writer's palette in terms of connotations. A connotation is more than a word's definition. Connotations are the subtle differences in words with similar meanings that cause readers to see subtly different images in their minds' eyes.

Here's an example of some connotations. A thesaurus tells us all of the words and phrases in the following list are synonyms for "happy."

  • content
  • pleased
  • glad
  • joyful
  • cheerful
  • in high spirits
  • blissful
  • exultant
  • ecstatic
  • delighted
  • cheery
  • jovial
  • on cloud nine

So all of these words and phrases make up the writer's palette for painting an image of their character's happy mood in the reader's mind. The writer's challenge is to select the best word from his/her palette to convey, in this instance, precisely what shade of happy the character is feeling.

While this example is somewhat simplistic compared to the everyday word challenges we face, it makes the point that understanding connotations is essential to successful fiction writing. That's another way of saying writers need large and wide-ranging vocabularies. True, we can always grab the thesaurus for a list of options, but we must still recognize the subtle differences in the mental images stimulated by each word on the list.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "In good writing, words become one with things." The skill is in selecting the word that will make the thing the reader sees exactly match the thing the writer sees.