Monkeys with Symbols

When I first heard the term “semiotics” (many years ago) it put me in mind of some sort of medicine. In a way, that’s sort of what you can think of it: medicine for your stories. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, such as why we associate the colour red with passion and aggression, and it can extend into the written word. It’s an interesting topic to study, and it can help a budding writer put hidden depth into their work.

A lot of semiotics is visual in nature, the way we associate what we see with our eyes with concepts and feelings. When we see the colour green, it puts us in mind of plants, which leads to associations with growth, nature, food, and health. A circle has no edges, it’s soft and non-threatening, almost friendly when compared to something more blocky and angular. Associations like this and more are used when designing things like packaging and advertisements for products. So where’s the connection to stories?

In my last post, I mentioned a particular genre convention of the Western genre: white hats and black hats. Although these days it’s not as common, thanks to the more morally ambiguous Westerns that came along in the 1970s, in the early days you could always tell villain from hero from the colour of their hat. Black has associations with darkness, death, and evil. White with purity, order, and good.

The visual shorthand of white-hat/black-hat is simplistic, and ever-so-slightly insulting when you think about it. Which is probably one of the reasons why they dropped it. But it’s a good example of the basics of introducing semiotics into storytelling. You elicit a reaction from the audience based on a subconscious level, predisposing them to go along with your narrative.

Don’t be stuck thinking that it’s all colours and shapes. There’s a depth of language, the patterns of the way we speak, which are just as solid and exploitable as associations. For instance, the human brain is pleased by groupings of three. In famous speeches and quotations, the power of three is exploited. The first time something is heard or read, it is taken at face value. The second time, it is emphasis, bringing it back into the mind of the audience. The third time it resonates as being important, sticking in the memory.

There are three witches in Macbeth. Three acts in most stories. Three spatial dimensions we can perceive. It occurs in numerous religious contexts, over and over. It is a prime number, divisible only by itself and one, and the smallest number of people required for complex relationships. Humanity has an oddly close relationship with the number three, considering we are mostly comprised of sets of two.

Before you start making everything about three, there are other numbers that we are connected to. We still like the number two, enjoying dualities and double acts. Five is as much as we can count on one hand, which is useful. Seven and twelve are more common than people think. We also like factors of ten: one, ten, one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand. How many times have you seen nice round numbers like that show up in fiction? I’m willing to bet it’s a lot.

All these things mean something, in their own way. But as writers, it’s up to me and you to decide what they mean in our stories, by the way we use them. Maybe your hero wears a black hat for a reason.