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Writing About Color

Sadly, by the time I actually publish this video, I will no longer be at the beach. But shooting it is a completely different story.

Shooting it, I’ve got my setting going on! Hence the reason why Innovative Editing republished material about setting all last week instead of offering new information like usual.

You see, every year, my family tries to go on vacation at the lovely strip of land known as the Outer Banks, North Carolina. If you’re in the U.S., you’ve probably seen plenty of cars driving around with OBX bumper stickers, proving what a popular destination this giant sandbar can be.

(And yes, it really is a giant sandbar.)

I don’t know about you, but I love the beach with its combination of sights and sounds and colors, the latter of which inspired this video. Because, sometimes, colors are a little bit difficult to write about.

After all, how do you describe something as vivaciously shaded as an ocean? Or detail the exact hue of a perfect sky over top?

For that matter, how do you give justice where justice is due to any kind of setting?

As with most other creative writing questions, it really depends. But before we cover the different ways it depends, let’s acknowledge something much more certain first…

A picture is always going to be worth a thousand words, and an experience is always going to be worth a million pictures. Since you’re merely writing, you’re starting off at an automatic and insurmountable disadvantage.

Just admit it and deal with what you’ve got.

After you come to terms with that basic rule of writing, you’re ready to tackle how best to describe your story’s setting.

To begin with, how much coverage have you already given to that particular place? If it’s the first time in your story that the main character is taking in an ocean scene, there’s much more justification to wax poetic about how the sky is a “bright sapphire gem too expansive to fully fathom” and the waves are “an evocative mess of foaming white atop majestic blues and teals and murky greens.”

If the main character has been to the beach five times in the last several chapters, however, you might want to lay off of detailing the specific colors involved. While seeing the ocean can be nothing short of majestic or delightful or melancholy over and over and over again, reading about it too many times in a row can be quite the opposite.

In other words, don’t bore your readers.

Secondly, what’s the mood of the scene? Is it introspective or care-free? Consider your answer carefully.

Let’s say it’s a dreary day outside your protagonist’s beach house, but she herself is enjoying a good novel inside. In that case, have her glance outside the second-story window to take in the greys and greens of the ocean before burrowing her nose back into her book.

That’s all you need to note: greys and greens.

But let’s say antihero Lonnie is brooding as he takes a walk on the beach on a cloudy day. In that case, there’s a much better case to be made for going into further depth about the colors he’s seeing. Maybe something like this:

With so little sun out that day, there was very little if any sparkle to the sand. No golden browns and glittering yellows to be found amidst the trillion tiny granules. Just dull duns and uninspiring umbers that brought him down even further.

Nor was the ocean itself any better. Crashing into the beach with what seemed to be pointless repetition, the waves were deep and fathomless blues flecked with sage and fern and olive and every other uninspiring color of green ever devised.

This then brings me right back to that don’t bore your reader rule. Too many more color-focused sentences than the ones just mentioned, and you’re at great risk of putting your audience to sleep. In the end, nobody truly cares that much about how many shades and hues you can name. Your vocabulary should never be the focus of your writing.

The plot and characters and theme should be the driving forces behind every word you put down on paper. So once color ceases to aid any of those, lay off the descriptions and move on to describing, detailing or divulging something else.

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