This week I was working on synesthesia in writing with my students. It’s not used prolifically in modern fiction, and I am surprised because it is an extremely powerful tool.

M.H. Abrams defines synesthesia as “one kind of sensation in terms of another; color is attributed to sounds, odor to colors, sound to odors, and so on.” When writers do this, they give the reader another level on which to experience the idea or image. This adds weight, and not only that, the unusual nature of synesthesia almost guarantees your readers will remember it.

Common examples from everyday speech would be a “warm” color, a “heavy” silence, or a “bright” sound. Each of these things describe something perceived with one of our six senses to another sensory perception. Warmth is something we feel while color is something we see. Adding this layer of experience to a color gives it a 3D effect. These are, of course, very basic examples.

Switchfoot uses synesthesia to great effect in their song “Restless,” with the line “the endless aching drops of light”. This line has other poetic effects going on within it, but describing light in terms of drops, and more than that, describing the drops in terms of an emotion, gives them enormous power.

Many people have probably used synesthesia without noticing it; you’ve probably used some of those common examples yourself. The technique is well-worth using intentionally, however. A well-crafted use of synesthesia can make a passage memorable and impacting.

So, as I work over the draft of my novel to edit the language for active verbs instead of passive verbs, conciseness, fewer modifiers in exchange for stronger verbs and nouns, etc., I’ll be adding intentional, poetic use of synesthesia to the checklist.

What about you? Have you ever used synesthesia in your writing? Have you come across a great use of synesthesia in literature?

4 thoughts on “Synesthesia

  1. Are you aware that the great English literary critic John Ruskin deplored lines like “the endless aching drops of light” and inveighed against the reasons you give to champion it? His reasoning was sensible: drops don’t ache.
    I say this to you with the best of intentions: What you’ve championed as good writing is actually evidence of very bad writing. This kind of image even has a name: pathetic fallacy. And here’s what Wikipedia says about it, in part:
    “The pathetic fallacy, anthropomorphic fallacy or sentimental fallacy is the treatment of inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thought, or sensations. . .
    In the discussion of literature, the pathetic fallacy is similar to personification. Personification is direct and explicit in the ascription of life and sentience to the thing in question, whereas the pathetic fallacy is much broader and more allusive. “Personification” is a more obtrusive and formal use of human traits attributed to natural objects, according to M. H. Abrams. For example, “the sea is angry at us” would be the pathetic fallacy, but when the sea assumes a human form such as a sea god, that is overt personification.”
    You can, of course, write any way you see fit, short of libel; your right is covered by the First Amendment, But I’m a writing teacher who feels a kinship with anyone who tries to write, and the teacher in me simply couldn’t let pass an opportunity to inform you that you’re wrong about that kind of writing and unwise to practice it yourself and to recommend it to others.

    • Bob, I too am a writing teacher, so I understand your intentions. However, I have to disagree with you here, because both personification and synesthesia are long-standing, well-respected tools of the fiction writer. I will say that they are not suited to every type of writing. However, Emily Dickenson, William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, and a host of other greats used personification and other similar poetic devices prolifically, and Tolkien (himself quite a master of language) uses synesthesia several times in The Fellowship of the Ring.
      According to the Wikipedia article you cited, John Ruskin considered pathetic fallacies to be a “scientific failing” due to his view that art should represent the world as it appears to our physical senses and not to our imaginations. He goes on to say that the temperament that can balance emotion and fancy with fact is the strongest, and I agree with that. However, I don’t agree that art must only represent what our physical senses can perceive. I believe that taking the imagination out of art hinders it. To a person in a particular mindset, perhaps a grieving one, those drops of light may ache. This cross-representation, while factually inaccurate, does communicate the experience more effectively. Good authors will use these tools subtly and will support them in a context that justifies their use. The images have to be compatible and they have to have a valid purpose and a valid effect, but when done well they are a mark of a talented and professional fiction writer.
      Fiction writing is about communicating the human experience. To a certain person in a certain time, those drops may seem like they ache. The fact that they do not literally feel pain doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that my character, in that moment, finds representation of how he feels in that expression.
      Some authors may choose to not use personification or synesthesia, and that may become part of their style. For myself, I prefer a style that compares unlike things, a style that challenges and broadens how I see the world, including drops of light.

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