Black, Red, Blue and Yellow

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 (eg 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!

14 thoughts on “Black, Red, Blue and Yellow

  1. Thanks for writing this (for me)… 😉

    As soon as you said this in class, it just resonated with me – my early drafts tend to be black – and as a new writer, I know I’ve been struggling to work out how to take a black draft and make my writing feel more complete – I’m definitely going to use this as an editing technique as I work towards my final submission-ready draft…

    One thing I might disagree with you on is that a first draft needs to include all four colours – I’ve deliberately kept my first draft mostly black – I wanted to focus on structure and plot and less of description – this was a deliberate choice – for me as a writer, the red, blue, and yellow come out of the black first draft – once I’ve had time to digest the first draft, I’ve been introducing more red, yellow, and blue in each subsequent draft as I learn more about my characters and the world they live in…

    But, as I like to say – there are no rules – there what’s works for me, and there’s what works for you.

    Once again, thanks for writing this – if this is the only thing I take away from your course (and it isn’t) it would still be worth the price of admission. 🙂

  2. Hi Pamela,

    I find this really interesting – and very timely indeed! I’ve been approaching this layering process by using the five senses – sight, smell, touch, taste and sound. This allows me to think through what each character is experiencing and by default it helps me flesh out the other elements of the scene.

    Sometimes I fear it overcomplicates things though. My writing is currently for middle grade (9-12) year old readers. I think i might try applying your approach as well and see how it goes.

    Thanks for sharing your process!!!


  3. As a graphic designer, I like this analogy, and one day I hope to make use of it! One question/comment though; at the end of your 4th paragraph, should that be “odd, distorted, uneven”?

  4. Did you write this post for me Pamela?? 🙂 Needless to say, I’m very light on the blue in my scenes. But I’m working harder to include more reflection. I also look at each scene as I’m writing it to see what I can include of the four colours. I guess we all have one of the four components of a scene we do best.

    • Don’t force your style into a particular framework if it doesn’t feel right to you, Cath. All scenes may need some of each colour, but the proportion between them is part of an individual style, and you don’t want to ‘normalise’ your writing – rather, think about what the reader really can’t be expected to work out for themselves and make sure that is there. What that will be depends on what kind of reader you want.

  5. Excellent advice. I almost think this could be as useful when reading as it is when writing. When reading others work that really sings for me, it feels like this could give a way to analyse how the author achieved the scene that resonated with me. Which parts make it really sing for me – which colour had the greatest effect? Sometimes focusing on what I love as a reader is the best way to improve my writing.

  6. Pingback: Black, Red, Blue and Yellow | Australian Writers’ Centre blog

  7. Thank you Pamela, I found this post by way of AWC. I really appreciate you sharing this way of thinking about content and editing.

  8. Hi Pamela,
    I’ve found your blog by way of Cathie Tasker at AWC and she feels your style will help me.
    Your ‘four-colour printing process’ sounds really helpful, and makes so much sense, but I don’t know exactly how to look for these, or rather, how it’s meant to look if I were to highlight these sentences in the appropriate colour.
    Is there any chance you could add a paragraph of your work here with the highlighted areas using your colour codes please?
    It’s probably obvious and I’ll let myself be embarrassed later, but it would be fantastic to have that next extra step.
    Just an example of why I struggle with this: if I were to write: ‘He glances towards her, as though seeking reassurance,’ Would you highlight that as red, because he’s emotionally vulnerable, or blue, because I’m guessing/reflecting about what he may feel, or simply black, as part of what happens?
    This would be much appreciated.
    Thanks, Carol.

    • Hi Carol,
      In ‘He glances towards her, as though seeking reassurance,’:

      ‘He glances towards her’ is black (action).
      ‘as though seeking reassurance’ is red. While, technically, it’s there as a reflection of the point of view character (ie blue), it’s purpose is to convey his emotion, so I’d class it as red.

      But honestly, it doesn’t matter which bits are which colour it’s about making sure your reader knows where the scene is set, what happened, what your characters were feeling, and what your point of view character thought about it all. You don’t have to go down to the sentence level on this – just check that you’ve covered those aspects of the story.

  9. Hi Pamela,
    Thank you for your quick response.
    Yes, I think I’m trying to be a bit too precise, but your reply has helped me already.
    Thanks so much for clarifying that for me.

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