March 4th, 2020

Coloring With Words

Eldred “Bob” Bird

I liken the writing process to using different boxes of crayons. Remember when you were a kid and got the big sixty-four color pack with the sharpener in the bottom? You could draw whole worlds in amazing detail with the color palette provided by that box. That's novel writing, with its infinite possibilities and wide open spaces.

As writers, words are our crayons and the page is our canvas. We may have 300 or more canvases to fill when writing a novel, so there is ample opportunity to use every color in the box. We can draw characters, worlds, and scenes with three-dimensional depth, adding splashes of color and deep shadows wherever we like. We are free and unfettered as we sketch our multi-picture masterpieces.

Cutting It Short

I’ve been asked why I continue to write short stories after completing three novels. Many assume that, once you master the intricacies of novel length storytelling, writing in a shorter form is a step backward. Nothing could be further from the truth. In some ways, short stories are more difficult to write than novels.

Remember the little twelve-pack of crayons (perfect for road trips and Christmas stockings)? Imagine trying to draw the same picture with the 12 that you did with the 64-pack. The bad news is—you can’t. You simply don’t have the room. You’re in short story territory now. As much as you push, pull, tug, and stuff, you’ll never fit everything on the more limited canvas of a short story.

You’re going to have to cut something, but what?

Writing short makes you focus on the details that really matter when it comes to getting the message across clearly and concisely. As in novel writing, you still need a beginning, middle, and end, but they’re going to be much closer together.

The good news is that while your palette is limited, you don’t have to use the basic colors provided in that little twelve pack. You get to choose which crayons you pull from the big box, or in our case, which words. Time to grab for those the bright colors.

Squeezing It All In

The shorter you write, the more important word choice becomes. A powerful word in just the right situation can do the same heavy lifting as a whole sentence, or sometimes even a paragraph.

If you’re drawing a Caribbean beach, you wouldn’t use just any old blue crayon for the water, right? No, you’d look for a perfect crystal clear blue—a shade that with one look tells you that you’re standing on a beach in the tropics, not the stormy Pacific Northwest.

The same holds true when we chose words for a short story, so get out your thesaurus and look for those power words that paint a picture all on their own.

Some quick tips:

  1. Focus on those verbs. These are action words that can do the powerlifting.
  2. Keep it simple. Mark Twain said, “Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do."
  3. Readers are drawn toward words with strong consonants.
  4. Alliteration—using words with the same beginning sound—is another powerful technique.

Something a Little Flashier

If you really want to challenge yourself as a writer, try flash fiction. That's the two crayons they give your kid at a restaurant. Here’s my best advice—grab the darkest crayon you’ve got and play with the shadows. You don’t have a lot of room for details, so give us one pop of color and then use contrast to your advantage.

Flash fiction is more akin to poetry when it comes to creating powerful images and deep emotions while using few words. Playing on the five senses generally yields the quickest results in this case. Sights, sounds, tastes, and smells can trigger strong memories and familiar images. Playing off those memories will have the reader filling in the colors for you. Imply the beginning, maybe give a quick peek at the middle, and then slap us hard with a visceral ending.

Some Parting Words

Whatever the size of your canvas, it’s easy to fall into the over-explaining/over-describing trap when we have so many colors at our disposal. Too many colors (or the wrong ones) can confuse the reader or push them away. Striking a proper balance is key, no matter the length of your story. Check out this post for more on the subject.

A Little Challenge

Okay people, now it’s your turn. Let’s try a little flash fiction. Grab those crayons and draw a quick, powerful picture in the comments using 25 words or less. I’ll start:

New lovers kiss. I turn away, but see your passion reflected in the glass. I swallow the shattered memory. This place is ours no longer.

About Eldred

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and the soon to be released Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

35 responses to “Coloring With Words”

  1. LauraDrake says:

    Bravo, Eldred! Love your flash fiction! I too, like super-short, because of exactly what you show above. Pithy, meaty sentences that tell a story. Love the crayon metaphor, too. The details you pick must do double duty - showing the scene AND setting the mood.

    Let me get more coffee on board and I’ll give it a shot!

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Thanks, Laura. I understand the need for the "morning fuel.' Believe me, I didn't write that flash first thing in the morning...

  2. Terry Odell says:

    I fear I fall into the "I write long novels because I don't have time to write short" category. I have written a handful, but they're always a struggle.
    I like your #3 about strong consonants. I'm going to have to keep that in mind. And, like Laura, it's far too early here for my brain to accept your challenge. Maybe later

    • Eldred Bird says:

      I started with short stories, but it was still hard to go back to that form after completing my first novel, so I understand completely. I've found writing short has also helped me write better long. I now treat each scene like a short story, then stack those blocks together to make a novel.

  3. Faith says:

    This one’s the kind of keeper I refer to often, and highly recommend to author clients. In fact, think I’ll email it to everyone I work with, plus tweet it with exclamation points. Thanks, Eldridge, for some 50-crayon insights and inspirations packed into a 12-crayon length.

  4. carolynmcb says:

    Ok, not 25, but still short.

    She studied the body. It was face down in the mud, the back of the head soaked with blood, hair matted to the skull and hardened now. The back of the denim shirt displayed hoof-prints of various types and sizes. Each of the shoulders sported a large hoof print bigger than a plate.

    “What can you tell me?” She asked of the crime tech who had joined her.

    “Looks like my neighbour,” came the reply.

    “About the prints,” the Detective sighed.

    “Those there are sheep-prints,” the tech pointed with a gloved hand. “Those look like cow, some big paw prints there in the middle, and I’d say those on the shoulders are at least the size of a work-horse.”

    The Detective straightened and eyed the dog, sheep, cow and a large work-horse a few feet away in a fenced-in pasture. Then she looked back down at the body in the mud. “Are you telling me those animals killed your neighbour?”

    The tech straightened too before studying the animals, who gazed back placidly. “Well, I can tell you he’ll never mistreat them again.”

    The End

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Nice job, Carolyn. Flash is all about economy of words, so I can see where we can tighten it up a little more. Once you establish that there are only two characters, you don't need the dialogue tags. They tend to slow the pace. I can also see a few places we can tighten up some sentences and get rid of some passive language. Mind if I give it quick edit to demonstrate? I'd never mess with someone else's work without permission.

      • carolynmcb says:

        I'd be most interested in seeing your edit! Have at it!

        • Eldred Bird says:

          Okay, I took a quick pass at some edits and here's the result.

          She bent over and studied the muddy, face-down body—back of the head soaked with blood, hair matted to the skull now hardened. A collage of varied hoof-prints covered the back of his denim shirt. Each shoulder sported a print bigger than a dinner plate. She turned to the crime scene tech.

          “What can you tell me?”

          “Looks like my neighbour.”

          “I mean about the prints.”

          The tech pointed with a gloved hand. “Sheep-prints. Those look like cow—got some big paw prints there in the middle, too. I’d say the ones on the shoulders came from a good sized draft-horse.”

          The Detective straightened up and eyed the animals placidly gazing from the fenced in pasture. She wrinkled a brow as her eyes fell back down to the body.

          “Are you telling me those animals killed your neighbour?”

          The tech shrugged. “Well, I can tell you he’ll never mistreat them again.”

          The first thing I did was get rid of any passive language and shortened up some the sentences to help the pacing. Once the characters are established, there's little need for attributions, so I got rid of some and replaced others with action tags instead to build movement in the scene, I also replaced a few of the longer descriptions with a couple of more powerful words that could do the work on their own. It's still the same story, just a little punchier and with fewer words.

          Hope this helps you!

  5. carolynmcb says:

    She studied the body. It was face down in the mud, the back of the head soaked with blood, hair matted to the skull and hardened now. The back of the denim shirt displayed hoof-prints of various types and sizes. Each of the shoulders sported a large hoof print bigger than a plate.

    “What can you tell me?” She asked of the crime tech who had joined her.

    “Looks like my neighbour,” came the reply.

    “About the prints,” the Detective sighed.

    “Those there are sheep-prints,” the tech pointed with a gloved hand. “Those look like cow, some big paw prints there in the middle, and I’d say those on the shoulders are at least the size of a work-horse.”

    The Detective straightened and eyed the dog, sheep, cow and a large work-horse a few feet away in a fenced-in pasture. Then she looked back down at the body in the mud. “Are you telling me those animals killed your neighbour?”

    The tech straightened too before studying the animals, who gazed back placidly. “Well, I can tell you he’ll never mistreat them again.”

    The End

  6. DLWillette says:

    Loved the post, Eldred! OK, I'll be brave. Here's my attempt:

    Fingers caressing the posed features of her wedding portrait, he was glad her devilish grin wasn’t there. That memory was his to claim. His alone.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Great start. Might I suggest you see if there's a way to get rid of the "to be" verbs? You have three instances of was in two sentences. Active verbs carry more emotion. I'd love to see the rewrite!

  7. M. Lee Scott says:

    Love the crayon analogy! I first wrote 1k shorts for a Harlequin board and when I started my longer fiction I found myself stalled after the first three chapters. I don't know if it was a plot problem or I had just run out of gas. It's been a long journey, but I do see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      It can be tough switching back and forth between long and short form, but it's a great exercise that makes us better at both in the long run.

  8. Jenny Hansen says:

    I just approved a comment for you, Bob!

    On the 25 word flash, I've got to use Brotherly Love, the short redemption story you just helped me with. 🙂

    "For months, he'd chased these albums down, from state to state and store to store.

    But it wasn't about the records. It was about redemption."

  9. In 99 words: Eldred Bird FLASH FICTION Challenge
    New lovers kiss. I turn away but see your passion reflected in the glass. I swallow the shattered memory. This place is ours no longer. I finish my wine and set my glass on the railing. Like the early morning fog, your image drifts away. Where are you? Far below me a tug chugs its way upstream, its gray wake ever widening. Staring at the ripples, your distorted image smiles up at me, and I remember. We were younger then. Before the war. Everyone was younger then. I swing over the rail and jump.

  10. pegood59 says:

    Loved the crayon analogy.

  11. dholcomb1 says:

    The flash of light reflecting from the ground caught her eye. A penny. Picking it up, Roma made a wish before proceeding to her interview.

    denise

  12. barbdelong says:

    Love crayons! Oh, the smell! Anyway, when I was ten I won a brand new two-wheeler in my city's "I love my daddy because..." contest, in 25 words or less (including the intro phrase). Wish I'd kept my entry. Something about counting my dad's freckles but he had too many. I love flash fiction, and your sample, Eldrid, was evocative.

  13. What if you never had the 64-crayon box when you were a kid? I never did.

    Short stories are definitely more difficult in some aspects, although the sheer number of words is daunting when writing a novel.

  14. ecellenb says:

    I love your flash fiction piece, Bob! I find writing flash fiction very difficult, but here goes.

    I lean against the railing, gripping wood dried gray with time and salt.
    Passionate sounds through the motel window quiet. They’ve drunk my gift.

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