Sunday, March 8, 2009

Thoughts on colors

One of my favorite blogs, the Bookshelf Muse, has started a new set of thesaurus entries on colors. I’m looking forward to reading more – Angela and Becca have more examples than Roget’s – but that also inspired me to write a bit about the use of colors.

Describing colors generally works better when there aren’t too many of them. Sentences like the following can be distracting.

The sunset sky was a fiery red, though the trees on the horizon were black as ink spatters and the pearl-white unicorn tossed its head uneasily at the sight of them.

This leads to the Crayola effect, where the readers aren’t immersed in the story because they’re watching out for the next color description (burnt sienna? raw umber?). Unless it’s unavoidable – for instance, the story has to include a description of something multi-colored, it would be better to pick just one or two shades and bring those out fully. Readers are more likely to remember that as well.

Describing colors in full could also involve giving them an emotional dimension. I’ve come across lots of examples of red – ruby, madder, congealed blood – but one of the most original descriptions I’ve ever encountered was in a fanfic which said that if hatred could be made into a color, it would be that specific shade of red.

The fanfic spent literal paragraphs on colors, and yet all of it was vivid, imbued with emotion and connected to the characters and their personalities. As a result, I enjoyed reading it as I’ve never enjoyed descriptions like “Containing three greens in striation – apple-green, jade-green, celadon – the girl’s eyes were beseeching.” (from Dean Koontz’s The Taking).

That’s also an example of what not to do when describing – if the readers pause to wonder what colors cochineal, corbeau or chrysoprase are, then they’re not reading. I’d rather my audience be caught up in my story than reaching for their dictionaries.

Colors are often used to describe more than material objects, but they can be applied to almost anything. Moods would be next, but there are others – for instance, “the pale minutes before sunrise” or “His thoughts were red thoughts” (from “Sredni Vashtar”, by Hector Hugh Munroe). Finally, here’s a fascinating post about the descriptions of colors and the history behind hues.

Happy coloring!


Anonymous said...

“the pale minutes before sunrise”

I love that.

Another great use of color is in Jane Eyre. The Red Room chapter.

Loren said...

I decided to track down cochineal, corbeau, and chrysoprase.

Cochineal is the scale insect Dactylopius coccus that lives on Opuntia cactus plants in Mexico and South America. From cochineal bugs is made a deep-red (carmine) dye.

Corbeau was hard to find, but I eventually tracked it down to charbono wine, which has a dark-red color.

Chrysoprase is a mineral sometimes used as a gemstone; its color is usually light green but is sometimes dark green.

Isn't Wikipedia great? :)

Marian Perera said...

I pulled "corbeau" from my Roget's Thesaurus, which listed it as an example of black. It's French for crow, right? Maybe that's why.

Roget's has some unusual color words - acier, bice, chrome, damson, etc.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tasha,

Could you elaborate on the use of color in the Red Room chapter? The most I remember of that part of the book is Jane being discovered by her cousins and a fight starting. Then she's locked into the Red Room, right?

colbymarshall said...

ah I had a scene once that I read back and realize I had too-many-colors syndrome. It can be scary!

Anonymous said...

Hey Marian,

I don't have the book in front of me, so I can't quote. But Charlotte did a great job symbolizing the somber colors and heavy furniture with Jane's oppressed life.

And yes, her aunt had the servants lock her in the room.

writtenwyrdd said...

Absolutely true about too much information leading to the "Crayola effect"--a term which I love by the way.

I think trying to be overspecific as to colors is overworking the writing to the point it disengages the reader. The trick is to give them the information to form a visual themselves. Some readers don't get too visual when they read, however, so by overdoing it you lose both styles of readers where the more visual types might be willign to assemble the visual from the myriad elements you toss into the narrative description.

I ran into this in the first big project I wrote, which I am tryign to make finished and sellable at the moment. I found room descriptions really overly detailed with the Crayola effect you mention. I decided the trick was to pick the color element that gave me the most bang for my buck.

Tara Maya said...

Colors are extremely important in my wip, which, in a way, makes even more tempting to abuse them -- and harder to avoid.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Tara, thanks for commenting.

I find it easier to remember and to understand how colors fit into the story if there's a pattern to them.

For instance, in Virginia Andrews' My Sweet Audrina, the heroine usually wears some combination of violet and white. Violet signifies indecision (since it's neither blue nor red), and Audrina isn't sure of who she is for most of the book. White means innocence, which is also a part of her personality.

Her half-sister Vera, on the other hand, is usually in green. The color represents envy, and Vera is jealous of her. It's a bit like the line from Steel Magnolias - "Pink is my signature color."

I don't know if the author consciously intended this, but for me, thinking of what the colors symbolized meant that the colors weren't just extraneous details. They were there for a good reason.

It's just one way to have colors in the story without abusing them.

Marian Perera said...

Hey writtenwyrdd, glas you liked the term. :)

I think trying to be overspecific as to colors is overworking the writing to the point it disengages the reader.

True. I like sex-and-shopping novels which contain detailed descriptions of clothes, but I don't want these to be overworked.

If "dark green" is described as "the exact shade of moss in the shadows, cool and damp", then the next color needs to be just plain white or grey. Otherwise they're competing with each other for attention.

I decided the trick was to pick the color element that gave me the most bang for my buck.

That sounds like a good idea.

And it's easier for the readers to remember the Red Room than it is for them to recall the Red and White Room with Black Accents.

Madison said...

I love to describe color in my stories. It's very easy to overkill, though.

Anonymous said...

This reminded me of a critique I did. The writer in question used color for everything. And I do mean everything! There was so much of it--and so much of it was unimportant like describing the brown delivery truck with the man in the tan uniform who didn't do anything but drive past the hotel. What all the color did was overshadow the story itself and make it hard to follow.

I like the idea of using a nuetral color to balance out a strong color!

My news reader apparently hadn't been picking up the posts--I came in and found twenty of them today!

Marian Perera said...

That would be my fault, Linda (the lack of posts, I mean).

I wanted a cool widget, if that's what it's called, on my blog where people could just click a button to subscribe. Unfortunately I'm a computer Luddite. So I screwed things up somehow on the blog's settings.

Luckily for me, Addis mentioned the problem and also showed me how to fix it. Thanks again Addis!

Angela Ackerman said...

What a great post! Is it okay if I link to it when we do our next color entry?

Marian Perera said...

Absolutely. I'd be flattered. :)