Insight into Schema

One of the buzz words in my consumer insights class is the “schema,” or the network of associations we have with certain objects. For example, in the schema of groceries are milk, cheese, eggs, meat, vegetables, dry goods, etc. Some of the associations are stronger than others. Some are more surprising than others. But through this schema, we can understand the world more easily.

The schema is a useful tool for a writer. A skilled writer understands which words belong in which schema. In another class, we read Being Dead by Jim Crace, which involves several descriptions of decomposing bodies (it’s not as gross as it sounds). In one section, there is barely any description of the decaying bodies, just “Celice’s skin was tough.” From that sentence alone, we have a vivid picture of what he is describing. “Tough” taps into several schemas: the primary one is meat, which is often described as tough, and which bodies are pretty easily linked to. It also evokes a set related to rotting fruit: an orange’s skin gets much tougher and dryer as time goes on. By using one word that can tap into different schemas, Crace does descriptive work that could last a paragraph in one little sentence.

Another important use of schemas to writers is thinking about which schema your character thinks of. In one of my pieces, I was writing from the point of view of a pregnant woman and she was talking about her baby. I wrote something like “I could feel the fetus moving inside me.” One of my beta readers, a mother, drew a big red line through that. She said she would never refer to her own child as a fetus. For me, the word was simply part of the schema evoked by the idea of a gestating baby. But for her (and I’m guessing for most mothers), “fetus” evoked a whole other set, linked with controversial issues like abortion and the scary medical discussion surrounding babies. I took her advice and changed “fetus” to “baby” because my character, a mother, would probably have a reaction somewhere along the lines of my beta reader’s.

This is good to keep in mind in general. A character from a more limited socioeconomic background might have different associations with the word “luxury” than a prep school kid. A teenager will have a different schema for Peter, Paul, and Mary (or no schema at all) than a Baby Boomer. Thinking about schemas is a refreshing way to make sure you’re in your character’s head and not your own.

And now my favorite part about learning schemas: the association game! What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear (or read, in this context) “odes”? Comment below for fun and you will win a smile from me! And then you can go waste time playing even more at


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