By Solvejg Anderson
Copyright © 2007 by
Solvejg Anderson, All Rights Reserved
He cut sharply across the path and trampled on the blades of grass.
Coming to literature from an artistic background, I discovered all
manner of wonderful and practical parallels, the most powerful of which
is the word palette, or theme set.
An artist defines a palette of colours designed to create a particular
mood; to elicit and enhance an emotional state. She might consider warm
and cool colours, earth colours, colour harmony, colour context, or even
For the author, this is one of the greatest skills: to shepherd the
reader across a carefully controlled, undulating emotional topography;
to guide the reader from one emotional state to the next.
On our shared blog, my young son explained how he created one of his
'About the coulers I tri to youes evry colur ones.' (About the colours,
I try to use every colour once.)
What we find with experience, however, is that, as T.S. Eliot contended:
'When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed
to its utmost -- and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom
the work is likely to sprawl.'
We can use words as the artist uses colours, or as the composer uses
keys and ideé fixes.
If, for example, our protagonist is walking into peril, we can mix
threat upon our palette. Tower blocks might skewer the sky, and cyclists
carve through the traffic.
In each word, we find an opportunity to heighten the reader's emotional
Similes and metaphors provide ideal opportunities for tapping into those
private domains of the reader's mind. Maybe the rain fell like an
angel's love; maybe it fell like poison-tipped daggers. And, should we
forsake descriptions in order to, say, increase the pace, we can focus
our attention on our verbs and nouns (and even assign a fresh and
valuable intent to adverbs), and our protagonist CUT SHARPLY across the
path and trampled on the BLADES of grass.
Brains like patterns and repetition. They pick them out and endeavour to
make sense of them, even if they do not tell us that they are doing so.
Hemingway (influenced by Stein) was most fond of repeating key words,
raising motifs to the fore, ensuring that what was important would be
inescapable, guiding the reader with a parental hand.
In using word palettes, not only can we heighten and crystallize an
emotional state through this form of subliminal impressioning, we can
create anticipation, too: we can encourage the reader to understand
something without realizing how he has attained this understanding (not
unlike a phantom POV in which an eerie and mysterious knowledge is
imparted). Indeed, most authors (if not all) already consciously use
non-verbal communication as a means of forging an understanding (through
a 'show'): Adam smiled; Brenda dressed like Cassandra; Dennis took a
step back; Ellie clapped her hands together; Flora stood close to
One of the most beneficial side effects of this technique is that it
encourages us to, as Eliot attests, create more inventive prose,
exploring unusual avenues and seeing our scene from a different angle. A
chapter that, for some unfathomable reason, fails to hit the mark can be
Choose the palette (describe the limitations, typically based on the
desired location on the emotional topography).
Create a themed list of related words.
Swap in those words where the narrative is receptive.
The surface meaning remains unchanged and is suffused with an invisible
duality. Double the power.
When the narrative begins to flow on two levels, it is not uncommon to
hear the reader exclaim, 'It made me feel [insert emotion here], and I
don't know why!'
Indeed, it is not the reader's job to know why. It is ours.
He cut sharply across the path and tiptoed about the blades of grass.
I suspect that there is much room for experimentation with word
palettes. I have noticed that Zadie Smith uses tiny, contained pockets
of such theme sets; Vladimir Nabokov was rather more liberal with his.
Smith's are playful; Nabokov's are disturbing.
What would happen if, for example, we painted a scene of hatred with a
palette of love?
Or if we infused a barren, nihilistic scene, superficially devoid of
meaning, with many meaningful theme sets?
The thought of such permutations and opportunities for juxtaposition,
concealed markers, and cross-pollination are very exciting! To what
extent might we translate colour theory to literature?