I once heard the advice that adding a colour to a description can improve it and make it more vivid. This is true but not quite as simple as it sounds because it doesn’t always improve it, sometimes it can even have the opposite effect. As with any other description we need to consider what we’re telling the readers and how we’re telling them this information.

For instance, ‘they were wearing a shirt’ says something a little bit different from ‘they were wearing a red shirt’. The first version is a little nondescript while the second literally adds more colour, it also tells us something about the character, or at least implies it. Red can create an impression of a bright red which draws the eye, perhaps this character likes to draw the eye (This is an implication so might not be true). Or perhaps they were wearing a deep red shirt which tends to be linked towards being sensuous. We could even contrast two characters based on their choice of clothing colours. We might have one character wearing a bright red shirt and another wearing all black which might imply this character wants to blend in and not be seen. Neither of these may be true it’s simply an impression we create. Perhaps a shy character has been forced into a bright red shirt for an event/party and is deeply uncomfortable at drawing the eye so much. I should probably mention at this point that wearing red doesn’t have to be an indicator of character it’s simply effects we can create.

Adding colours to our descriptions usually becomes problematic when people attempt to be poetic by using obscure, overly described, or simply out of place colours. There’s cliché of golden fields because corn fields can look golden, gold is also an easily relatable colour. While it can mean gold like the metal it can also be a particular shade of yellow. However, if we described the fields as aureolin it’s unlikely anyone who wasn’t a painter would be able to summon up an image, in all likelihood readers wouldn’t even know we meant yellow (I had to look it up as an example). Often simple direct description can be more effective than complex, or, at least, description that appears simple although the techniques we’re using might not be.

Writers often think they need to use more complex words in order to sound more intelligent, or even think it makes them better writers. Knowing all the seemingly complex words in the world won’t help though if readers can’t decipher the meaning of a sentence. This doesn’t mean we can’t use obscure words but we have to ask ourselves if it’s the right word in the right place. What works better on the page the ‘aureolin fields’ or the ‘golden fields’? Writers aren’t in a competition to prove our cleverness we should just be trying to write the best story we can.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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