By Sharla Rae
I’m sharing not one list today, but two. The first one covers shades of the basic color spectrum. The second deals with adjectives describing color and the possible “conditions” of color, that is, how it’s used. But Writing in living color is more than just knowing and choosing color descriptions. It’s showing the reader the story in living color even when “no” colors are mentioned.
Here’s how Laura Drake did it in her book, The Sweet Spot. In this excerpt, the focus is not on the color but the “entire” picture the character Belle presents. Only three basic colors are used. Remove the color terms and the reader would still see this scene in living color.
At the end stood a woman perusing a dog-eared catalog – a woman Char had never met, but recognized from the gossip. This was that new Yankee that moved in a few months back. Just where do you go to get an outfit like that? Red shortie cowgirl boots, a lacy black square-dance miniskirt puffed with petticoats, a white bustier cut down to there, and a black lace bolero jacket. Char swallowed, attempting to focus on the woman’s features. A nimbus of black curls overwhelmed her deathly pale, sharp-boned foxy face. Huge dream-catcher earrings bobbedwith her every move. She looks like Dolly Parton gone Goth.
If we watched this scene on an old black and white TV, we’d still see that Belle’s getup is extraordinary. But in this written scene we have an added advantage: She looks like Dolly Parton gone Goth. This is a descriptor that is immediately familiar to the reader. Who needs color names with this statement? Dolly Parton “is” the color.
Using color terms however, can be very useful. Color contributes texture and perspective by showing without telling.
Here’s an exaggerated example:
Black & white Movie: The scene opens inside a bedroom. It appears to be just a garden-variety bedroom.
Color Movie: Red velvet drapes at the windows, and bright purple upholstered furniture decorates the room. This is no ordinary bedroom and the person who decorated is probably out of the norm too.
Black and White Movie: A woman dressed in an ordinary business suit walks into the room. Again, nothing appears out of the ordinary.
Color Movie: The woman’s cheeks are too red, her suit is gaudy purple (not black) with flaming red trim.
Color gives a different perspective, showing a peek into the character’s personality by using the colors.
Colors aid with scene setting by adding tone and drama, whether it’s the gloom and doom of a storm, a cheerful summer day, a bustling city, or an old Victorian parlor.
Bright sheets of fire flapped in the air, frighteningly beautiful in hues of orange, gold and angry red. Flung out by the murderous blaze, burning debris scattered hither and yon, a threat Jessie constantly fought, using a blanket to smother cinders that fell on the wagon.
In the Lyn’s excerpt, I especially like her verb choices of sheets “flapping” in the air and debris being “flung” and “scattered.” Adding the color here gives a bigger than life living color scene but even without the names of the colors, this scene is very colorful. And you can't argue the drama!
Colors might also reflect drastic contrasts. It’s the old “appearances can be deceiving” rule.
We could use the above excerpt from Laura’s book as a contrast. The heroine, Char spies the woman named Bella in this scene and is shocked by her appearance. But what Char doesn’t know yet, is that the woman on the outside is very different from the woman on the inside. Contrast.
A generic example:
Jennifer closed up Corrine’s dusty little antique shop, and rode a rickety elevator to the old woman’s apartment. The elevator jolted to banging halt at the second floor. The door clanked open into a tiny vestibule hosting wide, bright white double doors with shiny brass handles.
Using the key Corrine had given her, Jennifer opened it, stepped over the threshold and stopped dead. Vaulted ceilings and a variegated Berber carpet of white and black transformed the warehouse space into a grand open-spaced condo. A huge abstract painting in scarlet, neon blue and jungle green splashed one of the stark white walls where it hung over a licorice-black sectional.
Good Lord, where were the antiques? The dollies? The dust?
There are many ways to convey color and it’s not necessary to tell readers what they already know. We know grass is green or that the sky is blue.
Of course, there are times when a familiar normal isn’t normal. It’s often just as affective to use character actions and one of the other five senses to show colors.
Example: The following is perfectly correct: Dry brown grass crunched beneath her feet.
But we could also write: Dry grass crunched under her feet.
We are “familiar” with the fact that healthy green grass doesn’t crunch. We know if the grass is dry and crunchy, it’s dead and familiarity tells us it’s most likely brown. There’s no need to tell the reader the grass is brown. For that matter, we might dispense with the word dry. Only dry grass would crunch.
In Margie Lawson’s blog, Ax Your Clichés: Why and How, we learned to put a twist on cliché descriptions and use more powerful constructions to show character emotions and story tone. The same rules apply with color.
Cliché terms like lobster red, strawberry blond, sky blue, and grass green are boring. These descriptions don’t really add texture, tone, contrast or drama. They just are. Sometimes simple is better.The hair is blond; the day is gray etc. But whenever possible, make colors work harder by showing.
Find new ways of expressing color but don’t make the mistake of using color terms readers have to research. Some examples: Brunswick (a green), Gamboge (tree known for yellow brown resin), Falu Red (a deep red) Ferruginous (rusty iron color) At The Phrontistery you’ll find a few more of these obscure color terms.
As long as clichés are avoided, using common objects, foods, places, animals or even people [Dolly Parton] to describe color is effective.
Below are a few examples but don’t be afraid to make up your own. Mention any of the terms in the list below and a reader automatically knows what color you’re talking about.
Writers can create color names that by themselves don’t sound like colors at all. Let’s take an imaginary trip to any cosmetic counter. We’ll spy color names that have nothing to do with the actual shades of blush, eye shadow or lipstick. What these color names attempt to do instead, is evoke an emotion that appeals to the female buyer– because after all the buyer is buying dreams of beauty, looking sexy, professional or looking like the-girl-next-door.
Any of the colors listed below could prefix almost any cosmetic color or even the color of attire, and we’d totally understand the emotion or mindset the color represented.
Crazy For Chic
Riviera Rose Satin
Viva Las Vegas
Can you make up some names for colors that evoke an emotion? I played around with a few ideas below. Keep in mind that it’s often the “connotation” of the descriptive that counts. What emotions do you associate with some of the following color descriptors?
Pepto-Bismol - Sickening, distasteful.
Jonquil - cheerful, perky
The color of sin – Probably black, meaning sexy or evil
Cocoa - warm & comfortable
Marshmallow – cheery, easygoing person
Moldy (black or green) – the blek factor
Morning mauve – promising, cheerful, relaxing, soft
Pearl – might project wealth, purity
Rabid … - this could prefix almost any color and give it distasteful connotation.
Quaker gray – prim and proper
Rosy – health, beauty
Stone – cold and hard to read
Sterile – cold, chrome and steel
Below is a list of color names/descriptors. The list is long so I tried to eliminate over used terms and obvious clichés. The second list of terms describes the conditions or state of color.
Achromatic – absence of color
Dichromatic – having two colors or varied colors in 2 directions
Homo chromatic – one color hue
MosaicMottled – spotted, smeared, freckled
Nuance – shade, hint, tinge, degree of
Pied – colors in blotches, varicolored
Polychromatic – variety of color
Subtle – delicate, slight
Tarnish – dull, discolored, stain
Tartan – plaid, pattern, checked
Trichroic – showing colors in three directions, varicolored
Resources and links:
So, how do you work color into the texture of your writing?
Sharla has published three historical romance novels: SONG OF THE WILLOW, LOVE AND FORTUNE, and SILVER CARESS. SONG OF THE WILLOW, her first solo effort, was nominated by “Romantic Times Magazine” for best first historical.
When she’s not writing and researching ways to bedevil her book characters, Sharla enjoys collecting authentically costumed dolls from all over the world, traveling (to seek more dolls!), and reading tons of books. You can find Sharla here at Writers In The Storm or on Twitter at @SharlaWrites.
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