Black, Red, Blue and Yellow

This post is by Pamela Freeman, author of more than 30 books and director of the creative writing faculty at the Australian Writers' Centre.

After a recent class where I discussed my ‘four-colour printing process’ approach to writing scenes, one of my students asked me to do a blog post about it. So this is for you, JJ!

I developed this way of thinking about writing scenes when I made the transition from writing for children to writing for adults. I wrote my first adult book as my thesis for a Doctor of Creative Arts degree, and my supervisor, the wonderful Debra Adelaide, kept saying, ‘You need more reflection, more thinking from your characters about what’s going on.’

In children’s writing, there are two factors which mitigate against the characters doing a lot of thinking – firstly, you often have illustrations which show the character’s state, so the reader can figure a lot out for themselves and, secondly, a lot of reflection may slow the story down too much for younger readers. Yes, you need some, but for adults I had to learn how to integrate more reflection into my writing. Also, I was writing a fantasy, the Castings trilogy; a genre which demands far more descriptive detail of the environment than most do.

So I needed a way to make sure I was including enough information for adult fantasy readers: thus, the four-colour process. When a full-colour picture is printed in a magazine, the black is laid down first, then the other colours: magenta, cyan and yellow (red, blue and yellow). Only when you have all four colours do you have a life-like picture. Anyone who has had a colour toner cartridge run dry on them in the middle of printing will know what a three-colour picture looks like: odd, distorted, uneven.

In my writing process:

Black = what happens: dialogue, action, movement, anything which influences the plot.
Red = Emotions. This is tricky, because it is not just the point of view character’s emotions, it’s what everyone in the scene is feeling. Sometimes, this affects the Black – you must show what other people are feeling by their expressions, actions, movements, etc.
Blue = Reflection/thoughts. This is pov territory – but, again, if you want to convey what other people in the scene are doing, Blue will impact upon Black.
Yellow = Environment/description. Can be vitally important. For me, the thinking about Yellow has to happen before I write the scene, so that I can accurately visualise Black.

I’m much better at Black and Red than I am at Blue. Yellow, it depends on the story.

So, when I do a first draft, it’s often heavy on the Black and the Red, and light on the others, although the Yellow may be implied (e.g. if someone picks up a rock to throw it, there were rocks in the environment).

Knowing this, I don’t think of my ‘first draft’ as a proper first draft until I have gone through the scene and made sure I have given the reader the right proportions of each colour to create a vivid, life-like scene. I do this before I go on to the next scene. Only when I’ve painted all the colours appropriately, do I think I have a ‘first draft’.

Now I am writing historical fiction, I find the process is the same; I need more description than in contemporary fiction in order to make the world in 1915 vivid for my readers, and it’s crucial to explain my character’s thought processes, because they are often quite different to what a modern woman might think in the same situation.

The great advantage of this way of thinking about a scene is that it makes you consider what each character is thinking and feeling, and this helps make those characters more alive for the reader (and for the writer; it often changes a scene significantly when you finally realise what that one recalcitrant character is really thinking!).

I’d be curious if other writers have other systems – please comment if you do!

Dr Pamela Freeman is the award-winning author of more than 28 books. Her most recent book, published under the name of Pamela Hart, is The Soldier’s Wife (Hachette Australia), an historical novel set in World War I. For children, her most recent publication is the Princess Betony series published by Walker Books. Her new book for kids, Lake Eyre, is a non-fiction picture book due out in late 2015.

Pamela is the National Director of Creative Writing at the Australian Writers' Centre.

This post originally appeared on her blog.

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