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

4 thoughts on “The Power of Association

  1. Abhishek Singh says:

    Your first example leads to an interesting chain of thought. I always felt that the glass slipper was meant to overstate the unique nature of Cinderella’s evening. In a regular situation, glass slippers would be a really impractical, uncomfortable and downright absurd. However, these ‘magic’ footwear along with the other enchanted items helped to end Cinderella’s misery. Apart from the Deus Ex Machina setup, this item provided a memorable reminder for both the Prince as well as the audience. It’s an iconic item that sets Cindrella apart from other characters in the story. There are similar instances where a certain trinket or possession (think Sherlock Holmes) becomes synonymous with the character.

    Your other example is where I tend to disagree a bit.The second passage is better than the first but that’s because the first one is intentionally bland without any effort put in. And my biggest gripe during such discussions is context: everything depends on it. If the beach scene is an emotional moment or is the culmination of a story, then yes, I want details describing the emotion and tone of the entire scene. However, providing too many details can also get tedious if it doesn’t add to the narrative. A century ago, authors would do this to fill pages, a walk through a market scene would include the minute details of every shop, their keeper and wares on display. However, if the actual action or plot advancement takes place in a completely different area, then you have just cluttered your audience’s brain with unwanted information.


  2. Daniel Hua says:

    Having good dialogue is important in games, but as games get better graphics, I think avoiding redundancy between the dialogue and the imagery is important. In the beach example that you use, unless it is for a text-based game without any imagery, it’s likely that the game has an actual cutscene for the event. If you take the description and add it to the cutscene, the information would be pretty redundant, and the text would draw the player’s attention away from the cutscene itself.

    With that said, I still think that there are many places in modern games for this type of dialog. An example would be the description in items that you see in games. For example, a description of an HP potion could be “a red liquid that restores 10 HP,” or it could be much more flavorful: “A blood-red liquid with a metallic taste. Recovers 10 HP.”


  3. mygodisagamerblog says:

    A well written article, though the initial half felt a little weak as compared to the rest of the write-up. I like how you drew to the power of association in storytelling. A topic often discussed as to how to balance the descriptive associations and it’s always about doing things in moderation. The example you presented was really well written, I would have liked to read more about your thoughts on this topic. The examples you presented were in a defined setting (In this case seemed romance), what if you changed the setting to something else (Say suspense or horror) at times minimalistic details are more powerful than such elaborate descriptions. Overall a great write-up.


  4. Anil Unnikrishnan says:

    It is powerful how associations can help bring better sense of the story. I liked your first story. I liked how you stated talking about Cinderella and her glass slippers. But the article did not provide me with a perfect answer to that question. It wasn’t a powerful association like the second example you quoted. I could relate to that one a lot more. I still can’t think of a good reason why there is a glass slipper in the story. “Its a fairy tale. Hence expensive glass slippers” is the first thought that runs through my mind but for some reason I am not able to think beyond that. I feel associations are an amazing tool to use. Anf once you nail it and the guest recognises it, it draws people into the experience instantly. But getting it right is the challenge.


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