3 Ways Colors Can Transform Your Writing

Arguably, no single descriptive attribute can transform your writing as quickly as color. We can spend hundreds of words laboring over a description of a springtime meadow or a shipwrecked boat, when a single color is all it takes to burst the scene upon the reader’s eye with perfect clarity. Consider the following quotations:

Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.—C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Something hung and glinted in the air beneath us: a bird of prey, hunting slowly along the pinnacle walls, suspended like a drifting flake of copper.—Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian

Swirls of bile and blood, mustard and maroon in a pail, the colors of an African flag or some exuberant salad bar: in the bucket—she imagines it all.—Lorrie Moore, “People Like That Are Only People Here”

Try removing the colors from each of these examples, and we find that suddenly the passages are no longer quite as vivid as they once were. Indeed, this vibrant effect upon our visual imagination is so strong that the mention of a color, even when the color of the object being described is already understood, still injects a richness that would otherwise be lacking:

She could remember moonlit waves on Caladan throwing white robes over rocks.…—Frank Herbert, Dune

Snow, falling in great white blossoms to disappear as it touched the sea.—Madeleine L’Engle, An Endless Ring of Light

It was an afternoon like any other in midsummer, hot and quiet and the sky blue except for the piles of silver thunder clouds resting upon the green mountains.—Pearl S. Buck, Dragon Seed

Fortunately, color is one of those few of a writer’s gifts that are difficult to abuse. Any dab of color, however mundane, can add a splash of life to a description. Most of the time, adding color to a scene is as simple as throwing in a little red, a little yellow, maybe a dab of pink. That’s all it takes to ignite the reader’s imagination. But transform those same colors into “…blood the color autumn dahlias…” (Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo), a “toast-colored” hat (Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People”), and a “sun … like the pink tongue of a thirsty dog” (Isaac Babel, “Odessa”), and color and metaphor mate with brilliant effect.

Because, to our subconscious minds, colors often indicate certain moods (red is angry, blue is tranquil, yellow is joyous), authors can use them to subtly influence how the reader experiences a novel. Following are three important ways, you can use colors to strengthen your descriptions.

1. Use Colors to Signal Character Personalities

Authors can often categorize characters (or sometimes the characters categorize themselves) through the colors with which they surround themselves: the clothes they wear, the paint and carpet they choose for their homes, even the essence of their moods. In their excellent primer Fiction Writer’s Handbook (affiliate link), Hallie and Whit Burnett expound on the idea:

Actual emotions are helpful in expressing emotions, placing emphasis where human behavior becomes exceptional. The use of redred face, fire in the eyes, and the like—will express anger, or possibly embarrassment. Green is a color which tranquilizes on a summer day; and the late Louis Bromfield, in a long-ago novel, spoke of an aura of color around the heads of his characters, which somehow added to their individualization and gave clues to their behavior. Research has been done by experts to determine moods expressed in colors, the various results being used in advertising to attract the eye of a buyer. So the novelist may add depth and convey meaning if he himself sees a scene as natural as the life before him, contrasted in tone and shade and values of the color spectrum.

2. Use Colors to Reveal Setting “Moods”

Behold the Dawn by K.M. WeilandWhile writing Behold the Dawn (affiliate link), a novel set in (what is now) Syria during the Third Crusade, I discovered that the “lighting” in a scene had a surprising effect on the tone in which I wrote it. For much of the story, the main character, a world-weary knight, struggles against guilt, anger, and emotional and spiritual defeat. However, because the action is set almost entirely in the sunny Middle East, I struggled with finding the right tone. My character demanded I write about the inner darkness against which he was wrestling. But the natural setting—bursting with colors of yellow and green and blue—refused to let me delve into the proper state of mind. As soon as I realized this—and consequently began setting most of my scenes in the black and gray shades of night and overcast days—my problem was solved.

3. Use Colors to Evoke Symbolism

Colors can also be used to weave the subtle thread of symbolism. This is something that can be allowed to develop instinctively; often, our subconscious can create much more fitting symbols than we can produce deliberately. However, upon completing a first draft, it’s never a bad idea to run back through your manuscript with an eye open for any colors (or any other illustrative or descriptive repetition) that crop up frequently. Once you’ve identified any symbolism you may have unconsciously attached to a character or setting or theme, you can then go back and strengthen it.

Adding color to any narrative piece is always a joy. I love the vividness and the beauty. And I’ll admit I also love how easy it is. Granted, it can be overused, same as any modifier, but for the most part, coloring inside a story’s lines is one of easiest ways to add the stamp of vividness to our writing.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What colors are most prevalent when you visualize your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

3 Ways Colors Can Transform Your Writing

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I’m always on the look-out for ways to expand my color vocabulary. My newest find is:

    http://www.gemstone.org/gem-by-g…gem-by- gem.html.

    Although some of the color names are too unfamiliar for use, it does broaden me a bit.

    Good post!

  2. Wow. Thanks for sharing. I found a great “color synonyms” post on a blog one time, but it recently went offline, and of course I never got around to printing it out. I’ve been missing it for the past month.

  3. Good thoughts, Kim. I’m always trying to come up with ways to get more color into scenes. And still I don’t think I do it enough. And what a great idea about the gem-stone colors.

  4. Thanks for reading! This was a really fun post to write. Adding color to scenes is one of my favorite parts of description. I keep lists of colors (and various objects that inspire colors) tacked to my bulletin boards, and I’m always adding to them.

  5. Belle Lynn says

    K.M. you always pick the BEST pictures for your blog posts. You have an eye for great pics.

    This quote: Snow, falling in great white blossoms to disappear as it touched the sea.—Madeleine L’Engle, An Endless Ring of Light – is such a good quote (I can just see the snow falling in big blossoms).

    Do you have a special way of putting color into your writing?

  6. I get most of my pix off Flikr.com.

    Adding color is one of the easiest (and the most fun) parts of writing. Anytime I can pop a bit of color into a description, I go for it. But I try to dig a little beneath the surface, beyond the obvious. Instead of angry red, why not livid red? Or enraged red? Instead of green the color of an emerald green, why not green the color of a watermelon rind?

  7. Fabulous article. I just finished reading three or four other related articles on your site and I wanted to thank you for nailing down hard and fast tips for creating beautiful prose.

  8. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m always tickled to hear the articles were helpful or enjoyable.

  9. SJ Griffo says

    Another great post. I adore using color in many ways in my novels. I once wrote a story idea where the color red was banned. 🙂

    My current novel’s title includes a color, and I use color throughout the story. The ruling class have a blue logo and they wear a lot of blue. Their servants wear navy. The lower classes have a green logo. The resistance uses a white object as a symbol.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ooh, interesting idea about the color being banned. Sort of like the “bad color” in The Village?

  10. thomas h cullen says

    Fantastic. When you included humour, with action and relationships – this is on that level.

    Colour’s undeniably effective; its power to communicate ideas is no less than that of words themselves.

    They can be defence mechanisms; just like words, their being chosen can allow authors protection from vibes and versions of a scene they don’t like.

    Jet black – this is Croyan and Mariel’s hair colour.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s interesting to me how each of my own stories tends to have a certain color in my mind whenever I think about them. It doesn’t affect the story in any conscious way, but it certainly affects my perception of them.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Same here. It’s not meaningful of anything except for the mind’s arbitrariness.

        Colours, images, specific language: in devising The Representative, there are certain things I’ve come to “establish”, either in itself the text, the pages in a diary elsewhere, or just “confirmed in my own mind”, thereby not allowing my mind at some future point to re-determine them.

        It can feel petty, the lengths we may go to to protect ourselves from an idea of something, but it isn’t actually.

  11. Great post, Katie. I agree that color can be highly evocative, and really get across the mood or idea that you’re trying to convey.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Becca! I think maybe it’s because color is so easily visualized. There’s never any question what the reader is supposed to visualize – as with something more general such a desk or a dog or a sunset. The specificity brings all sorts of clarity.

  12. I love colour and have studied colour therapy, it speaks so many languages. Thank you for reminding me of such a powerful force in writing.

  13. Very good points about color. I love color in description because you can imagine it any shade you want if the author is brief enough. I definitely felt that the environmental descriptions in Behold the Dawn improved the story and still sticks out to me because of your use of color.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That fascinates me that the colors in Behold the Dawn have stuck with you. Makes me happy too. :p

  14. Thank you for your reminder of the importance of color. It reinforces my idea of introducing my three main characters in a setting that provides insight into their individual journeys. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out where color can deepen the effect.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a great approach. We can sometimes forget how powerful setting is as a commentary on character.

  15. Nadege Thomas says

    Thanks a lot Katie for such a great post! It’s always good to be reminded how color makes such a difference in a novel.
    At the moment, my work in progress is more dimmed with black and grey (prison, guilt, revenge…) but soon the sun will shine again and hope will rise up 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The thing I love most about color is that, used right, it can be a supremely subtle, supremely powerful bit of symbolism.

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