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?