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.