Thursday Writing Prompt No. 46

This week’s Thursday Writing Prompt concerns the use of color. Some writers don’t like to give much description in their stories, and what little they do provide tends to be pedestrian. But your narrative doesn’t have to just be functional. Part of writing lies in the delight of choosing words that make the prose come alive with texture, not just meaning.

Yes, you can say the sky is grey, but if it’s dark and dreary, a “leaden sky” might evoke more of an image in the reader’s imagination and you can dispense with extraneous words, too. No need to say something such as “the sky was a dark gray.” Instead, “the sky was leaden.” One of the problems with this is running into cliches: rosy-cheeked children, muddy brown, stark white. I’m not sure these are actually cliches, but they’re common enough in writing that they might as well be.

Here, the selective color option was set to record green. Note how the flowers tend to disappear amongst the foliage.

The point of noticing color is that it has a big impact on our perception of the world. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that — just go to a clothing store and try to pick out a shirt in just the right shade of blue or red! Take a look at these two photos of an African violet. I took the top image by using a selective color option on my camera to emphasize the violet flowers, and the second image was set to emphasize the green leaves.

What is your reaction to the pictures? I bet in the first one you immediately looked at the flowers, didn’t you? Everything else became background material. The second image tends to be messy: it’s not clear what the subject of the picture is supposed to be. The flowers are small and get lost in the jumble of leaves, which makes it hard to pick them out of the mess. Most people will look at the lighter green leaves first just because the eye is drawn to the bright parts of the image first. The flowers are almost gray, and they pretty much disappear.

Another selective color picture, this one emphasizing reds. Because red is such a bright color, the flowers are much more emphatic in this image than in the African violet photo above.

Now, here’s a third picture that uses selective color. Because these flowers are large in comparison with the plant’s leaves, they’re pretty easy to spot. And because they’re bright red, they stand out dramatically against the other parts of the image. There’s no confusion here about what part of the image the viewer is supposed to look at first — the part that the photographer thought was the most important.

Fine, you say. So what do these pictures have to do with my writing? Well, color will spice up your writing, and if you use it well, you can direct the reader’s attention to those parts of the description that you think are the most important. Find something that you’ve written, or that someone else has written, that uses descriptions of color. Notice what words are used to describe the hues, and then rewrite the description. Instead of “she wore a tan skirt,” say something like “her skirt was the color of bleached bones in the desert.” Make the color work for you in your narrative, and put a little poetry into your prose, too.


3 thoughts on “Thursday Writing Prompt No. 46

  1. Good points about color, and excellent illustration with the photographs. Forcing words to do double and triple duty, as you say “put a little poetry in your prose” is a great way to create pithy and interesting descriptions. BTW, nice African Violet – they can be so hard to grow.
    One Writer’s Mind

    • Thanks. I think many modern writers are focused on writing clear narrative and don’t want to get bogged down in details. But I love description (it doesn’t have to go on for pages, though). That violet was unhappy at home, so I took it in to my office. I think it likes looking out the window! 😉

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