Fiction writers have a great challenge that filmmakers don’t: they must bring their scenes to life by painting with words rather than visual images. How can this be done effectively? Just saying that your character hears a shout or sees a man in a brown suit doesn’t do much to help transport a reader into your world.
Writers are told to use sensory detail of setting and characters—sounds, smells, textures, tastes. But this is no easy task. If you try to describe, for example, what an artichoke tastes like to someone who has never eaten one, you’ll get a “taste” for how difficult this might be to do.
So let’s take a look at some ways writers can infuse their novels with color and sound beyond “telling” the reader a character is seeing or hearing something.
Consider a Deliberate Use of Color
The deliberate use of color is often completely ignored by novelists—or used randomly without purpose—whereas filmmakers have to be keenly aware of the subtle and often subliminal effects of different colors. Every color has subtle emotional and subconscious impact on us, and it behooves writers to take the time to research colors and use them effectively.
Listen to what author Patti Bellantoni says in her book If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die:
Films as varied as Cabaret, Dick Tracy, and The Sixth Sense all use purple to foreshadow death . . . Both Gwyneth Paltrow’s bedspread in Shakespeare in Love and Nick Cage’s bedspread in Moonstruck are a hot orange-red, and they certainly accompanied lusty activity in those films . . . A strong color elicits a strong visceral response. This, in turn, can set up an audience to anticipate a particular action. . . .
My research suggests it is not we who decide what color can be . . . [but] I am convinced, whether we want it to or not, that it is color that can determine how we think and what we feel.
Filmmakers sometimes tone everything down except for one or two objects in the frame to make them stand out. Similarly, a writer can show her POV character perceiving something similarly when one object appears to be brighter than anything else around it, or a glaring light shines on it, highlighting it in a symbolic way.
Novelists can infuse their scenes with color, whether vibrant or drab. When you have a character, in her POV, who sees the world around her as drained of color or in shades of gray, you indicate how she feels about her setting in that moment. Washed-out color could imply memory loss or fading emotions, or a disconnect to place or people.
If you, the novelist, have an understanding of the subtle effect of color, you can purposefully put these colors in your scenes—either blatantly or subtly—to help enhance the mood of the reader.
So take some time to research the effects of various colors on the human psyche, and play around with ideas on how you can integrate specific colors symbolically into your novel.
Exploring the Perception of Sound
In the book Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijll, we read this about sound: “Sound effects are as much the purview of the writer as are visual symbols. . . . Sound effects can also suggest an extended aural metaphor. Sound effects can be obvious or quite subtle. They can intentionally draw attention to themselves or manipulate with stealth. They can expose, disguise, suggest, establish, or reveal.”
Movie scores affect viewers powerfully, eliciting strong emotions that can make moviegoers cry and despair or feel their hearts soaring with joy. And although writers can’t add movie scores to their words (yet), there are lots of ways to add in sounds in fiction for powerful effect.
Evoke place by inserting ordinary sounds into your scenes, such as the clink of glasses, the tinkle of happy banter, the drip of a faucet in an abandoned building, the screech of tires from a car racing away from the scene of a crime.
Sounds can also be emblematic. The hum of a mosquito can be deafening and a recurring motif in a story. Even the jangle of keys can be terrifying, as seen in the opening scene of the movie E. T. as the terrified little extraterrestrial runs from the men chasing him. You’ve probably watched movie scenes in which all the sound is muted except for one isolated sound. Similar to a close-up shot, this is done to make viewers pay attention to one specific sound.
Novelists Can Do It Too
This isn’t all that hard for novelists to emulate. By describing how a character perceives the sounds around her, a writer can essentially do the same. One sound out of many—such as a loud heartbeat—can be singled out, and that sound can even be symbolic or work as a metaphor.
Think of ways sounds can be used as symbols or motifs in your novel. A ringing bell can be part of a pastoral landscape coming from a church nearby, but it can also mark time, and symbolize time running out.
Asking questions like these will help you infuse your novel with colors and sound:
- How much attention should be paid to sound and colors in my novel?
- What sounds and colors could I add that the characters would notice and that would enhance each scene?
- What colors could I place and mention strategically for a specific emotional or symbolic effect?
- Where in my novel can I mute all colors or sounds but one, to make that one stand out meaningfully?
- Are there places where it would be appropriate for me to use enhanced, expressive, distorted, and/or surreal sounds to add tension?
Writing novels in a visually stirring way may be something new and foreign to you, and it can take some thought to structure or rework your scenes so that they are dynamic and textural. But if you take the time to infuse your novel with color and sounds, you’ll transport your reader to your rich, sensual world—a world they won’t soon want to leave.
Do any novels come to mind that you’ve read that emphasized certain colors or sounds? Which novels, and how were these elements used? Can you think of a way you can infuse your novel with an emblematic sound or color? If so, share in the comments.
Happy Birthday, Seekerville!
Today, C.S and Seekerville are giving away a print copy and an ecopy of Shoot Your Novel: Cinematic Technique to Supercharge Your Story. Leave a comment to let us know you want your name in the camera case for this great resource. Winners announced in the Weekend Edition!
C. S. Lakin is a multipublished best-selling novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her book—Shoot Your Novel: Cinematic Technique to Supercharge Your Story—is designed to help writers learn the secrets of cinematic technique.
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