|This topic sheet was originally
devised for the Exciting
Writing for Radio course. There is a table of
links to other teaching resources towards the bottom of
IMAGINATION & MEMORY
Radio is a particularly powerful motivating force
for the imagination because it lacks any visual dimension.
Whereas picture books, film and television constrain
the imagination by imposing more or less explicit visual images,
words without pictures compel the mind to provide its own "visual"
content. The use of sound effects may further increase the imaginative
stimulus in the listener.
Memories play a crucial part in the imaginative
process. When the imagination is called into play, one's memories
are its most abundant resource by far.
Sounds, words and phrases often trigger subliminal
links to specific memories or categories of memory. Since memories
include the full range of sensory experiences, the triggers may
evoke (literally "call out") remembered sights, smells,
emotions, sounds and speech.
The imagination, once invoked, is capable of huge
leaps of thought. Memories may trigger other memories, perhaps
unrelated. Ambiguous words and phrases, or the linkages or conflicts
between the meaning of the text and the attendant sounds, may
evoke further, perhaps conflicting meanings, providing renewed
stimulus to the imagination. The mind may begin to form new ideas
as the sound and sense of the written text react with evoked memories.
A crucial measure of exciting writing, then, is
its power to stimulate the imagination. The effect may be particularly
enhanced by removing all extraneous information in order to concentrate
the reader's mind on the sounds, words and phrases that provide
the greatest imaginative stimulus. Arguably this is not only a
primary reason for the reverence in which poetry is held, but
also serves to explain why poetry works so well on radio:
- its sounds and sense are concentrated;
- its imagery is deliberately heightened;
- its evoked images are truly personal, even unique;
- the relative paucity of its words enable it to give way quickly
to the world of the mind, having first set the imagination in
- its pleasing effects on the mind, often coupled with its satisfying
rhythms and rhymes, make it both memorable and worth remembering.
THE SOUND OF THE SPOKEN WORD
Our previous discussion of sound gave perhaps insufficient emphasis
to the use of spoken sounds as a stimulus to the imagination.
Plainly attributes such as accent make the listener imagine visual
appearance, place and social situation. But the imaginative processes
can run much deeper if one focuses on the poetic potential of
The evocative power of the spoken word is subjective, of course,
and accordingly imponderable. But surely every writer can relate
to at least some of the techniques used by poets and speech-makers
to enhance the evocative qualities of speech. For example:
- Written words evoke remembered sounds, whether of individual
consonants or syllables, or of non-spoken sounds (such as the
sound of the sea in the word "sea", or the onomatopoeic
sound of a word like "pop").
- Sound patterns engage the ear, assist understanding, and make
writing more memorable. Metre, rhyme, assonance and alliteration
can all play a part in the creation of evocative sound patterns.
- Music provides a useful reminder of the inscrutable power
of sound at the level of the subconscious.
ENGAGING THE INTELLECT
One of the defining features of truly evocative
writing is its ability to stimulate the intellect, such that the
reader's/listener's response does not end with the moment of reading/listening,
but continues to reverberate within the mind for seconds, minutes
or even years afterwards.
When sound causes memories, perhaps previously unrelated,
to come together in the forefront of the mind, the intellect,
becomes engaged and acts upon the assembled information to create
new associations and ideas. The reader or listener gains satisfaction
from the process, such as solving the puzzle presented by the
writer/speaker, stumbling upon a new line of thinking, etc.
These processes are made still more exciting by
the uniqueness of the mind, in the sense that each person's mind
encapsulates a unique portfolio of personal memories and a complex
matrix of associations formed through unique personal experience.
Even the simplest words may trigger an idiosyncratic
series of responses that would not all be familiar to others.
For example, the word "seaside" might conjure up thoughts
of happy childhood days in one person, while causing someone else
to shudder at the memory of a near-death experience.
From a writer's perspective, the evocative and imaginative
power of a piece is increased by choosing words (and phrases)
that are likely to trigger complex responses - for example, words
- are open to many different interpretations (e.g. senseless,
- represent grand or otherwise challenging ideas (ineffable,
- have emotive or otherwise strong associations in the minds
of many people (flower power, slimy, bayonet);
- cause the reader to stop and think, perhaps by virtue of their
relative unfamiliarity or unexpected context (ineluctable, iron
When the imagination and the intellect become engaged,
the listener is likely to perceive meanings that are not explicitly
stated in the text. Such thoughts may be nothing more than irrelevant
interference, caused by the evocation of memories that have no
immediate relevance. Importantly from a writer's perspective,
however, many such thoughts are a logical outcome of the interpretative
process, and may be premeditated accordingly.
Specifically, the listener works to construct a
coherent mental "picture" (whether truly visual or not)
of what is meant by the text. If the mind perceives that important
details are missing from the text, it may call on memories to
fill the gaps. The picture changes as further information is provided
explicitly by the text. The sub-text is the part of the picture
that is never explicitly stated, but is nevertheless crucial to
the reader's/listener's interpretation of the text.
It is virtually impossible, of course, to provide
a truly complete picture using words alone. Characters in books,
for example, are differently perceived by different readers, however
carefully the author describes them. Indeed there are few writers
who would seriously want to eliminate ambiguity, with all its
potential for richness and evocation, from their work. On the
contrary, since radio, like poetry, is deliberately concentrated,
it may be worth striving to make the sub-text may as powerful
as the text itself. Part of the wonder of sub-text is that, whilst
it may be largely intended, different readers/listeners may perceive
meaningful sub-text that the writer had not foreseen.
Sub-text may be used to mirror any or all of the
functions of text. The key question for the writer seeking to
develop sub-text is "How do I get across the idea that ...
(e.g. the girl is about to have a nervous breakdown; A is out
to rob B; etc) without actually saying it?"