How to Write a Memorable Mnemonic Story

There are only 2 rules you need to keep in mind to write memorable and effective mnemonic stories:

  • Rule #1: Activate the Senses
  • Rule #2: Avoid Ambiguity

Example #1: A Narrative

Let’s link the word “あるく” (pronounced “ah-roo-koo”) to its meaning: “to walk”.

Here’s our first attempt, using the linkword “ark”:

Noah walked around on the ark.

This story doesn’t follow Rule #1: Activate the Senses. It doesn’t spark many sights, sounds, or smells in your imagination. And because of this, you’re likely to forget it. Let’s light up the reader’s mind with more detail.

Each morning, Noah took a long walk around his ark. He’d put on his spandex and a headband and strap his iPod to his arm.

Since he had nothing else to do, his walks would last for hours. They’d last so long that his iPod ran out of batteries. By the time he finally stopped, he was dripping with sweat and even the animals turned their noses when he passed them.

This story is a lot more memorable. You might visualize the spandex and headband. Maybe you hear music as you picture Noah walking all day. You might even smell Noah or the animals in your mind.

But we now have a new problem. We’ve broken Rule #2: Avoid Ambiguity. You might remember this story, but will you remember that target meaning was “walk”? Or will you instead remember that it means “exercise”? The problem is that we’ve unwittingly introduced a number of items related to exercise: exercise clothes (spandex, a headband, and an iPod), sweat, even an exercise routine (“each morning”).

How do we make the story vivid without also confusing the reader as to the meaning? Let’s brainstorm for ideas that are more closely tied to walking and then work them into the story:

  • walking laps
  • power walking
  • various animal walks

While on the ark, Noah liked to go for walks. He’d walk laps around the ark, since he had nowhere else to go.

One by one, the animals joined him. They walked together along the edge of the ark. Noah led the pack with a serious power walk. Each of the animals followed with their own distinctive walks: the apes shuffled along using their knuckles, the ostriches walked with their heads bobbing back and forth, and the komodo dragons lumbered along with their short legs rotating rapidly.

Example #2: A Dialogue

Suppose we’re writing a story for the Spanish word “acuerdo” which means “agreement”. Here’s our first attempt, using the linkword “acquire dough”.

“Let’s make an agreement to acquire dough for our operation. From this moment forward, dough acquisition will be our top priority. Agreed?”

I’m sure you’ve realized that we haven’t activated the senses enough with this story. But how do we do so? The word “agreement” is an abstract word that’s much harder to visualize than “to walk”. The solution is to find concrete words that embody the sense of “agreement” and place them into the story.

“Let’s sign this agreement to acquire dough for our operation. From this moment forward, I’m going to frame and hang our dough acquisition agreement so that we’ll remember that it’s our top priority. Agreed? Then let’s shake on it.”

Now, the agreement is a physical object accompanied by a handshake. Great. It will be much easier to visualize and remember. However, we’ve broken Rule #2 by introducing an ambiguity: the physical “agreement” looks like and can be confused with a “contract”.

To resolve this ambiguity, let’s again brainstorm for what the essence of an agreement is and what would make it different from a contract in written form. Here are some ideas:

  • Contracts tend to be between 2 entities. An agreement is often made between more.
  • Contracts tend to be 1-sided. Agreements are usually arrived at together.
  • Contracts tend to be formal and long-lived. Agreements are more informal and temporary in nature.

Using this list, we can improve the story.

“Gentlemen, I think we’re all in agreement that we need to acquire dough for our operation. To that end, I’ve written up a preliminary agreement that we can all sign and pledge our support to. It states that all of us will do whatever is in our power to acquire dough.”

The group discussed the agreement and all were pleased with its terms. There was a round of handshakes and smiles as each signed their name to the agreement.

OK, so we’ve done a good job avoiding ambiguity, but is the story memorable enough? Let’s add more to it to help the reader visualize “acquiring dough”.

“Gentlemen, I think we’re all in agreement that we need to acquire dough for our operation. Every member needs to help. The bakers need to acquire fresh dough for baking, and the bankers need to acquire the green dough for investing, if you catch my drift. To that end, I’ve written up a preliminary agreement that we can all sign and pledge our support to.”

The group discussed the agreement and all were pleased with its terms. There was a round of handshakes and smiles as each signed their name to the agreement. They could already smell the dough that they would be acquiring (imagine the smell of pizza dough mixed with freshly-printed money).

You might have to bounce back and forth between Rule #1 and Rule #2 while writing a story. You also have to decide where the best balance is. Every story is going to have some amount of ambiguity and every story could be made more imaginative and vivid. You don’t need to make it perfect, you just need to be aware of the conflict between the two.

Example #3: A Ridiculous Piece of Advice

The more ridiculous or silly a story is, the easier it is to remember.

A Spanish word for “slow” is “lento”. We’ll use the linkword “lentils”.

Do you want to know the secret to good lentils? Slow cooking. That’s right, you can’t rush making lentils. They like to take their time. And when you mix them, do it nice and slow.

At first glance, this story seems to be a good balance. It’s not too ambiguous (although you might mis-remember it as “to cook”). And it’s almost impossible to not activate the senses when using a food item like lentils. But we can do better.

Have you ever had a very vivid dream that you couldn’t shake from your memory once you awoke? The dream was probably so hauntingly strange that it stuck with you. Do the same with your story.

Do you want to know the secret to good lentils? Slow cooking. That’s right, you can’t rush making lentils.

Want to know something else? Lentils actually slow down the time around them. It has something to do with relativity, I think. Don’t believe me? Try smearing some lentils on your watch and see what happens. Pretty soon, it’ll be slow. Can’t catch all the action in that game you’re watching on TV? Flip a spoonful of lentil soup from your bowl at the TV screen and watch it in slow motion!

Odds and Ends

Deliver a Memorable Punchline

We tend to remember the beginning and end of a story more than the middle. Make use of this by putting your translation and/or linkword into those positions. Ideally you begin your story with the linkword and put the translation in the punchline.

With a good introduction and a powerful punchline, you reduce the risk of ambiguity in the story.

Activate as Many Senses as Possible

Say that your linkword was “dough”. Pizza dough would be a good representation. But Play-Doh might be even better. Since many of us played with it at a young age, we’re more likely to remember its vivid colors, unique texture and interesting smell (and possibly taste, depending on how you played with Play-Doh).

Italicize the Linkword

Italicizing a word forces the reader to slow down (perhaps imperceptibly) while reading it. It literally adds temporal emphasis to the word, especially if the reader is subvocalizing.

Bold the Target Word

Seeing the bolded words helps remind the reader, at at least a semi-conscious level, what word or concept the story is trying to enforce. If you find a large chunk of your story without any bolded words, consider carefully if it’s worth keeping; it might just be a distraction.

Practice!

Writing good mnemonics comes with practice: not just practice of writing, but the practice of using your own mnemonics. Nothing will show you what works and doesn’t work better than forgetting your own stories!

What to Do if You’re Stuck

It might take a while before you can easily create memorable mnemonics. Don’t worry. They will come more easily with time.

It’s helpful to start writing as soon as you have a linkword, even if you think the mnemonic’s not that great. You can always scrap or change your story later.

You’ll find that as you begin writing what you thought was a weak mnemonic, the very act of writing activates other regions of your mind, giving you more ideas for embellishment. It seems to be an unfailing trait of the mind that it is very hard to drag ideas from it when staring at a blank page, but that the ideas begin to flow freely once the first word is laid down.

Take Breaks

If you get stuck on coming up with a mnemonic for one word, try another. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes if you’re not getting anywhere.

I keep a list of at least 10 mnemonics I’m working on at any given time. Sometimes I’ll think of a good linkword. Other times I’ll think of a good story. Sometimes a word will sit for weeks and then a perfect linkword and story will come to me in a flash.

Good Luck

Writing linkword mnemonics can be fun and rewarding. Not only do you get to exercise your imagination, but you know that your stories will be used and appreciated by others.