Color or b/w?

Etta Wilson

Blogger:      Etta Wilson

Location:    Books & Such Nashville Office

Weather:    70 and cloudy

We are definitely in the time of nature’s full color. Driving down the Natchez Trace last week, I was thrilled at every turn with a new array–the golden browns and yellows of elm and poplar, the bright orange to apricot of maples, the brilliant red of dogwood and deep crimson of sumac all interspersed with deep evergreen cedar and pine. Hard to keep my eyes on the road.

That same evening on television I happened to see a segment of 60 Minutes showing a remarkable b/w film of a San Francisco street scene made just days before the great earthquake and fire, which destroyed much of the city, including what the film had recorded. They also showed a b/w picture of the same scene after the devastation. Somehow the b/w photography seemed to imprint the effects of the terrible event more than color photography would have. It brought to mind the sickening b/w photos from bombed cities in WWII.

The comparison of these two visual impressions made me think about several things pertinent for those of us who paint pictures with words alone. How do we create pictures of what our characters see for readers? With more glowing narrative descriptions? With more modifiers, using the adjectives and adverbs that are almost verboten? Or with the emotional response of the character(s) viewing the scene?

One author who uses a combination of the above is Lee Smith in her book The Last Girls, which I’ve just started to read. In the first chapter, one of the characters has checked into the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and is reminiscing about the trip down the Mississippi she and 11 other college girlfriends had taken in the 1960s after studying Huck Finn in literature class. They are to meet again here, and the view of the river and the setting sun from Harriet’s hotel room window seem to open all sorts of windows on her past and her relationships. In a startling moment, the light from the river forces her to turn on the light in her room. I don’t want to over-deconstruct, and I have to read more before saying more, but it’s interesting to see the role of nature’s color in calling up the character’s thoughts.

How do you paint scenes in words and what do your characters feel as a result of what they see?

8 Responses

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  1. Salena Stormo says:

    In the book I just finished my character moved to the part of Texas where I live. I spent a lot of time driving the area and looking at it in a whole new light. I envisioned what she must have thought or felt the first time she saw her new home. It made me look at my home town with a new and improved love for the area because I had to envision it through someone else’ eyes. Then putting it down on paper to describe her emotions about what she saw and felt made it all come to life. I found myself researching the trees, wildflowers and the history of the area to be able to describe everything in a way that would allow the reader to have a good visual.

  2. Nikole Hahn says:

    I use nature quite often. I think it’s like the music they play in movies. You can use it to foreshadow, to lighten a scene, or to hammer down a point.

  3. Caroline says:

    I like your observations on black and white verses color images. I’ve often noticed that black and white images seem to emphasize different details than color images do. I wonder if that has more to do with the different shades of gray that come out in black and white images or in our perception due to the lack of color that we’re so used to.

    I know that, in my life, images provoke so many feelings or trigger memories. To capture that in writing, I focus on the character’s senses and physical or verbal reactions from those feelings. Even in retelling a story or describing an event in nonfiction, using the senses to convey images can help show feeling.

  4. Lynn Dean says:

    In writing as in painting, it’s not so much necessary to capture every single detail as to capture the significant details. I tend to paint in the details that bring out themes and motifs. As for my characters’ responses–usually I rely on the four less-used senses (touch, sound, smell, and taste) to help them internalize what they’re seeing. Then I use deep POV to show how they process their perceptions and the message they take from them.

  5. In my photography classes in college my professor told us that black and white photos often tell the story better than color. It strips away the distractions and concentrates on the action. It actually gives more detail to the story. I think that’s the same thing we have to watch with our words. Are they a distraction or are we focusing on the story to be told?

  6. Etta Wilson says:

    Wow! So many great observations from you.
    Re: Selena’s character moving to Texas which forced Selena to see the setting with a new set of eyes, I just read that old adage about there only being two plot ideas in fiction–someone travels to a new place or someone new comes to the place where the story is set. It’s either “Ulysses” or Faulkner’s “Absalom.”
    Here in Monterey (Steinbeck country), I have read a book about the real Cannery Row with many b/w photos which give wonderful real-life views of the historical period when canning sardines was the major industry–so different from the tourist attraction of today.

  7. Etta Wilson says:

    Lyn, your remark about relying on the less-used senses made me think of several books and mss I’ve seen lately featuring a child with autism. It’s difficult to present a character without dialog.

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