Ruth E. Walker.
St. Patrick’s Day is coming, and we can expect lots of green glitter, shamrocks and dyed beer. It’s a time where just about everybody declares a connection to the Emerald Isle, real or otherwise. On March 17, we are green with envy for anyone who really is Irish. But is it easy being green? Just ask Kermit. Or any seasick passenger.
Colour associations are like gold to the knowledgeable writer and when used in subtle ways, bring added depth to text. Figurative language–using words or expressions that mean something different from the literal interpretation– is a useful skill for all writers. And colour is a power tool that works brilliantly with figurative language. But don’t splash colour willy nilly into your writing. The link between colours and ideas relies on many factors to reach your readers’ imaginations.
Get red for your readers
Think of the colour red. Basic association leads us to all things bloody. Red is life, as in lifeblood. Red is love, beating-heart, romantic love captured in a red Valentine. Red is hot, as in fire. Red is also danger: stop signs and red flags. And it is anger, as in flushed cheeks. And what about those red flushed cheeks? They can mean shame. And arousal. Or the aftermath of a brisk winter walk.
See what is happening here? Red on its own has common associations and it also has branches. Once you throw “people” into the mix, our associations get increasingly complex with lots of room for error and misdirection. So it is up to writers to set the stage for meaning.
Here’s a simple sentence of description:
He hesitated outside the room, his cheeks reddened.
Is “He” embarrassed? Turned on? Frostbitten? Angry? The reader will never know if you haven’t put into place all the right ingredients. And is it necessary to say “reddened”? Why not imply red cheeks and allow the reader to imagine or even experience the colour?
Same colour…different tones
Here are three different takes of the same scene with some tweaking for changing emotions:
Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so hard he was sure he could crush it. She was hiding on the other side. He felt colour ignite the skin of his face. Good. Let his fury be the first and last thing she sees.
Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the round knob so hard he was sure it would catch fire under his touch. She was hiding on the other side. He felt heat rise over his face. Good. Let his passion be the first thing she sees.
Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so tight he was sure he could break it and keep him outside forever. She was hiding on the other side. His cheeks burned. Good. Let his shame be the first thing she sees.
Remember: Preparing context is important. And using imagery to support the emotional context helps guide your reader to understanding.
A rainbow is global but symbolism is another story
Another part to using colour in your descriptions is to remember colours hold different meanings for different cultures. Western brides would be unlikely to wear red to their wedding. But in many Eastern cultures, red symbolizes the colour of celebration, good fortune and a long life.
That’s why using colours is so dangerous to writers. You need to be clear about what you intend for the colour’s meaning, but subtle enough that you’re not hitting your reader over the head with a hammer. (As an aside, my three examples earlier are exaggerated for effect. I’m sure you could be more subtle than those attempts.)
Christina Wang explores colour in an interesting article for Shutterstock, the stock-photo company: Symbolism of Colour and Colour Meanings Around the World. And you can look further into the whole idea of imagery, symbolism and meaning. Head to the library and discover how symbolism is analyzed in psychology, art, religion and dreams.
There are only two kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were
Nonetheless, on St. Paddy’s Day, I’ll be wishing a leprechaun or two might happen by with all the colours of the rainbow to inspire creativity and a quick pen to record it with. Because for writers, that’s a true pot of gold.
Did you know:
The luck of the Irish may be with you. There’s still a couple of spots left in our writers’ retreat on April 21 – 23. Join Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker at Emhirst’s Resort for feedback on your manuscript and one-on-one consultation. Enjoy dedicated time to write, the camaraderie of other like-minded folks and inspiring lakeside vistas. All-inclusive means you just need your writing project, jammies and a change of clothes. Writescape takes care of all the rest at Spring Thaw 2017.