Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Black and White

By Mark W. Danielson

If darkness is the absence of color, white is complete color, and a rainbow is the breakdown of color, then what we see in life is everything in between. Some people refer to this as the gray area, but that definition is more rhetorical than factual. Still, it is the gray area that writers must illuminate.

Many years ago, one particularly good art teacher pointed out that there is no black in life, unless one was referring to complete darkness. Shading is created by removing color. A setting sun does this until all definition is gone. To the artist, shading is accomplished by using darker versions of the original color. The sharpness of a line depends on the distance in which it’s viewed. The same holds true for a color’s boldness.

Applying this principle to writing, backgrounds are normally a glimmer of the foreground, yet just like a painting, neither is effective if they don’t compliment each other.

Artists and writers are visual people who see things that others gloss over. But problems arise when inexperienced writers overstate. There is no reason to use paragraphs and pages to describe a setting. In most cases, less is more. Adjectives can be a detriment. Well chosen words allow the reader to create their own version of the scene.

Writing encompasses one other element that paintings cannot. A scene cannot be complete without sound. In Michael Crichton’s Timeline, one of his most powerful scenes is the absence of sound after his protagonist traveled back in time. There are no planes, trains, or automobile background noise, and suddenly, the sound of racing hoofs grows louder. Whether it’s a trickle of rain on the roof or a vehicle’s exhaust, adding sound to your setting is critical.

Readers are conditioned to think of black and white in terms of race, but even there, skin color is an interpretation that is oversimplified by stereotypes. The whitest albino still has tone, as does the blackest black. A Native American is hardly red, nor are Japanese yellow. With this in mind, you are probably better off addressing a character’s physical features than labeling them in a particular category.

Our world is full of color, and it’s a writer’s responsibility to ensure their readers share it. Keep it simple and appropriate to the scene and everything will come together.


Terry Stonecrop said...

Good advice! I like the way you compare writing to art and the shading.

And the sound (or lack thereof) to the setting. So true, big difference, yet I often forget this one. Thanks for the reminder:)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks, Terry. Sound advice is usually the easiest to forget. (pun intended:)

Jaden Terrell said...

Nice post, Mark. As a dabbler in the visual arts (drawing and painting), your comparison really spoke to me.

It occurred to me that another way artists can create shadows is to add the opposite color on the color wheel (e.g., add purple to yellow or green to red). Adding the color opposite creates a shadow that almost vibrates. It's the tension between conflicting colors, just as tension in a novel can bring out the depth and richness of the story.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Well said, Mark. Spoken as a true artist. :) And I love your rainbow.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Beth, I'm surprised there aren't more authors who dabble in the arts. The two are truly inseparable. Good choice of color as well.

Thanks, Jean.