Jilly: Meaningful = Memorable

32821555_sThink back to a book you read ages ago. What has stuck in your memory?

As I predicted last week, I’ve been mining some good stuff from Joseph T. Hallinan’s fascinating book Why We Make Mistakes. It’s a collection of popular science that explores human error, perception, memory and behavior. I bought it hoping I might find some handy hints about how to iron out the wrinkles in my writing process. I wasn’t disappointed (more about that next week), but I also picked up some interesting thoughts about how to make my characters and descriptions more memorable.

One snippet that caught my attention was a discussion of what we find it easiest to remember about people, and why. The book cites British research dating back to 1986 (Cohen and Faulkner) in which subjects were asked to study the biographies of fictitious people. Each biography included the fictitious character’s name, the name of a place associated with them such as their hometown, their occupation and their hobby. In subsequent tests:

  • The best-remembered detail was the character’s job (69% of the time)
  • A close second was the character’s hobby (68 per cent)
  • Hometowns weren’t far behind either (62 per cent)
  • Names were dead last (only 31% of first names and 30% of last names).

The suggested explanation is that our long-term memory is semantic: what stays with us is meaningful information, not simple labels, and a person’s job or their hobby is semantically richer (more meaningful) than their name.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as it relates to opening scenes, and I’m wondering whether I should add an item to my revision checklist. Not that I should shoe-horn in my main characters’ hobbies and occupations, but that as far as possible, any information that I want the reader to remember should be meaningful. It’s not enough to mention a detail and expect it to stick.

As an example, awhile ago I got some contest feedback from a published author on the opening scene of Dealing With McKenzie. In that scene things go disastrously wrong for my heroine, Rose. I showed clearly what happened and how Rose reacted (badly), but I did not spell out why it was so important to her until a couple of scenes later. The comment on my marked-up entry said ‘spell the heroine’s stakes out here; don’t hold them secret.’ In other words, make what happened meaningful. I tried adding a couple of sentences to show why it was so important to Rose, and I was amazed how much stronger it made the scene.

Tomorrow, I’ll be revisiting the opening scene of my current WIP (for the hundredth time), as I’ve just realized this may be why it still doesn’t grab me. I’ve put the ‘what’ of Mary’s goal right there, and her sense of urgency, but the ‘why’ of it doesn’t come until the second scene. *Smacks self around head with Moleskine notebook*.

The ‘meaningful’ thing has lots of other implications, and I’m still working through those. Pitching. You have five or ten minutes to create an unforgettable impression of your story. Is it more memorable to open with the heroine’s occupation rather than her name? Titles. Is using a character’s name in a book’s title a useful reminder, or a wasted opportunity? And so on.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Jilly: Meaningful = Memorable

  1. You know what I remember from your early draft of the first scene? Yes, her job: jewelry designer. But also the glittery pageantry, her excitement to be there. (-: And now that you mention it, I think her soft country accent was in early first scenes as well. I also remember her enameled discs . . . .

    This is really interesting, and it certainly holds true for me. I can remember a half a dozen details about a person before I remember their names — sometimes even for people I know quite well (I’ve had lousy name-memory days since high school, at least). Pets, their kids’ ages, their hobbies, some odd thing they told me about (usually a like or dislike).

    What a big job it is, though, trying to get all those details fit into a first page, as well as moving the plot along and introducing the other characters as well!

  2. That’s interesting. I’ve heard that focus on what we do vs. who we are is an American fixation, considered bad manners in some other countries.

    • I think if you’re meeting somebody (or reading about them) for the first time, their occupation or hobby would be a good first clue as to what kind of person they might be – banker or bee-keeper, mountaineer or stamp-collector. It makes sense that would be more informative than a name, though if a name is well-chosen (Hamilton Blueblood III or Tex Rugged) that could also be meaningful. I wonder if they’d have got different results in the experiment if they’d chosen names that fitted the fictional person’s home and occupation?

      Perhaps the bad manners thing is reserved for people who choose their friends based on a person’s occupation or financial success or social status rather than their character or personality? I think there are people like that in every culture 😉

  3. I’ve heard what Jeanne said too… But I think it’s more than a “job” … Which might be why it sticks. We we list someone’s job, we also say something about their level and type of education, their probable status, and wealth… As well as some things about their personality, likes, and possible passions. It also often gives us a possible framework for how they think and solve things… On top of which, in a story usually “what they do” has bearing on the story- archaeologist, cop, teacher, biker witch, demon slayer, magician, engineer, etc. whether we like it or not, “job” is a huge part of our identity and does tell us more – instantly than a name.

    Hobby – similar reasons to above

    Hometown – where someones come from – also crowded with information- especially to someone from the same place or similar – an instant way to identify with you character.

    I found this who blog – super fascinating and it will make me think more about including this info and when…. We writers spend so much time stressing over our character’s name – and maybe we should be stressing about other things more. Thanks also about the “stakes” reminder and to be mindful and up front about them! 😀

    • This is a really good point. These labels are meaningful because they’re shorthand for a whole web of information, which can help with a quick, rich set-up – and then gives the opportunity to develop or play against the obvious assumptions. I’m going to try to take better advantage of this.

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