The Power of Association

“When the clock stuck midnight, she rose up and fled as nimble as a deer. The Prince followed, but could not overtake her. She left behind one of her glass slippers, which the Prince took up most carefully.

The very next day Prince caused it to be proclaimed, by sound of trumpet, that he would marry the girl whose foot this slipper would just fit. They whom he employed began to try it upon the Princesses, then the Duchesses and all the Court, but in vain. It was brought to the two sisters, who did all they possibly could to thrust their feet into the slipper, but they could not effect it.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s an excerpt from one of the most timeless fairytales of all time. And there are many things about the story that make it timeless. But the question we are here to ask is:

“Why a glass slipper?”

Think about it. Pragmatically speaking, for the purposes of this story the only real requirement the slipper had was to be abnormally small or abnormally large; just aberrant enough in size that it would not properly fit most women in the land.

But the story goes further than that. That night, the Prince spent a few brief, fleeting moments with what could quite possibly have been the woman of his dreams. And before he knew it, she was gone.

She was almost surreally pure, transparent and beautiful. Was she even real? Even the memory of her felt so delicate and precious that he felt almost afraid of leaving it alone, lest it slip through the fingers of his mind.

He had looked all over the castle grounds for her, but he could not find her. All she had left behind was a glass slipper.

He would take great care of it. He would carry it with him and scour the land in search of the girl whose foot fit the slipper perfectly. For these were matters of the heart. And the heart my friends, is a fragile thing indeed.

You cannot simply leave the heart open for the shallow to slip in and out as they please. Nor can you cannot fill the void of the heart by forcing someone in it who clearly does not belong. When it comes to the heart, it must be handled with great care; because, if someone does not fit “just right”, it is quickly liable to break.

And THAT is the power of Association in Storytelling.

Our minds contain subtle but powerful associations with everyday things that imprint themselves in our memory because of the unique way in which they interact with our senses:

Sight, Sound, Smell, Touch and Taste.

As you tell your story, (through words or images) employ memories and experiences that are common to us all; things that invoke a certain type of feeling or bring about a fundamentally visceral association.

As game designers, we tend to do this all the time, most commonly with red barrels and golden chests. We tend to do it a lot more through imagery, but it is a wonder to me that we don’t use it more often in dialogue or text.

Consider the following two descriptions:

“They both walked side by side along the beach. The waves were pleasant. The sun was setting and there was a nice breeze. They held hands and walked together in silence, both more than happy in one other’s company.”


“As they walked, their feet left behind gentle prints in the sand that were washed away every now and then by a wave that rushed in to kiss the shore before quickly receding. The sun set slowly over the horizon and their hair swayed gently in the breeze. Nothing was said between them. And nothing needed to be. They continued walking hand-in-hand and enjoying the hum of the sea.”

Now, how heavy-handed you want to be with your descriptive associations is something that I leave up to your discretion. It behaves a little bit like a potent spice in a cooking recipe. If you add too much of it in all the wrong places, it will render your narrative almost completely inedible.

But a clever little pinch here and a quick little dash there with a resonant association will add a whole lot of flavor to your narrative that will keep your guests coming back for more, without their having a completely conscious understanding of why.

So as you weave your next narratives, I encourage you to think about things that invoke a certain kind of visceral association, like wood, metal, flowers, smoke, grass, dew, snow, fire, fungus, blood, insects…

The list goes on and on. But ask yourself what these things mean to you. And then ask yourself what your character is experiencing at that moment? Can the two be mapped to one another? How?

I hope this helped and I wish you well. Let me know if you come up with something cool @JerryTJohn. Good luck and Godspeed.


The Power of Association