Painting with Words

I majored in art, so it’s natural for me to compare painting a picture to writing a book. The artist uses color, along with shapes and lines, to create a picture. Writers use words. When starting a new painting, I have an idea in mind. Some artists make detailed sketches. (These are the plotters.) Some start painting, allowing the idea to take shape or change as they work. (The pantsers.) As I paint, there comes a point where I need to step back and study what I’ve done. (Editing) Do I need to add something? Wipe something out because it’s not working? Add more detail? Whatever I decide, it’s going to involve changes in other parts of the painting so everything works together.

No two artists paint exactly the same. (Some artists are copied, but experts can usually tell the difference.) We “see” things in different ways. Consider a DaVinci, a Degas, and a Picasso. All three paint women, but each sees the female form in a different way. Artists pick different colors or choose to work in black, white, and grays. They use different shapes, lines…compositions. So it is with writers.

Writers paint with words

Last week I finished a novel by Reed Farrel Coleman. He does an excellent job of painting with words. For example:

The station was a cold and lonely place at that hour, and when a winter wind kicked up, blowing litter around in whirling eddies, hurling pebbles and grains of road sand into your windows, it felt like the end of the world. —Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman

With that one sentence Coleman has told the reader a lot about the tone of the book and how the main character sees his world. He’s painted a picture.

What if he’d simply said the station was a cold and lonely place?

That wouldn’t have been enough. That would be like the wash of color the artist first adds to the canvas, the hues somber, probably a pallet of blues and grays. You might get the idea that this is a train station from the shapes, but little more.

Coleman then gives us wind. A winter wind. The word “winter” for many says “cold” and most of us have been out in the cold in winter.

Blowing litter around in whirling eddies.

This is the same as the artist adding details to the painting. We see paper and empty Styrofoam cups whirling in the air.

Hurling pebbles and grains of road sand into your window.

Coleman has added sound—at least in our minds—as that sand hits the van’s window. And if you can hear that sound, it means there’s not a lot of noise around you. You are alone.

The words he’s chosen have created his picture. He’s told the reader this isn’t going to be a cheery story; that if you were looking for a cozy, put this book down. Choosing the wrong word is like choosing the wrong color. What if he’d written “A spring breeze” or “blowing confetti around in whirling eddies.” The word images would have created a totally different picture.

J.A. Jance, in Exit Wounds uses the following two sentences to describe an animal control officer.

But Manny Ruiz had already vaulted out of the Blazer. Running along with the gait of an upright grizzly bear, he charged past the mobile home and headed for the river.

She could have simply said Manny Ruiz was big and gangly. Instead, she gave you an image.

Lisa Gardner in Hide paints a picture of a subway station.

I tossed my token into the slot, breezed my way down the stairs to the wonderful, rich, urinal smell that accompanied any subway station.

Each adjective and verb we choose (like each color the artist chooses) will affect the picture. Don’t simply tell your reader how a person moves or what a subway smells like, paint a picture.

You are the artist. Choose wisely.


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12 Responses to Painting with Words

  1. Richard Blake says:

    Fabulous Blog

  2. Joe Novara says:

    This was helpful. I like the illustrations to make your point. Good blog. I also liked Echoes of Terror…lots of telling details there as well.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed Echoes of Terror, Joe. I tried to “paint” a picture of Skagway and the area around it . Such a beautiful location.

  3. I couldn’t agree with this post more. Painting with words brings life to a story that otherwise would be a static telling.

    • Maris Soule says:

      You are so right, Irene. I love reading well written descriptions that not only show the beauty (or uglyness) of an area, but have their own beauty.

  4. Melissa Keir says:

    Fabulous advice. I love the analogy.

  5. Vicki Batman says:

    Always a good reminder. I know artists look at things, the world, etc., differently and I’m positive that translates into writing.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Vicki, I think writers look at things different, too. I know when something good or bad occurs, I find myself thinking, “One of these days I’m going to use that in a book.”

  6. Excellent points, Maris. I try to “put myself in the scene” so I can better pull Reader there, painting with words.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Mary, I often find the words I use initially do describe the scene but not as well as the words I’ll think of later, when I do an edit. That’s when I look for a better “color.”