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Color as a Storytelling Device

Think of a color. What does that color mean to you? How can you use it to tell a story?

By Sean PatrickPublished 7 days ago 3 min read
Top Story - June 2024
Color as a Storytelling Device
Photo by Robert Katzki on Unsplash

Think of the color green for a moment. Free associate the meaning of the color. In societal terms, green means go. Stop lights are a universal totem, red for stop, yellow for slow down, green for go. The cultural-societal association of these colors to specific meanings allows you as a writer to use these colors as a storytelling device. You can use peoples associations with color as a way of demonstrating something about your character visually. Green also has a cultural association, in America anyway, with money. Money is green and thus if you code your character with green and create a visual association with money, you've revealed character traits.

Red is a terrific storytelling device as it has numerous cultural-societal meanings. Red is the color of blood, the color of stop signs and stop signals. Red flag is a universal term for a warning sign. As a storytelling device, if you choose to associate your main character with the color red, you've taken on the cultural-societal baggage of the color. Subconsciously, we've all trained ourselves to see red as hot, as blood, as stop, and thus the association of red and your character takes on dimensions that you may not have intended but exist in the subconscious of your audience,

You can choose to lean into red and make it a motif, an indicator of deeper meaning behind your character. Red is hot and you can use it to indicate that your main character carries a fiery hot passion for life. Red is the color of blood so you can use it to visually indicate that your character is dangerous, they like to draw blood either literally or metaphorically in how they pursue the goal they are after. Red means stop, as in you see a beautiful woman in a red dress and an air off menace around her, that should be an indication to stop, do not pursue her. But then she lowers her green eyes to you and you go for it. Green means go.

I don't really like the movie American Beauty, in part because I loathe the sight of Kevin Spacey, but also because I have always disliked the character of Lester Burnham. He's the poster boy for the ugly entitled man-child. Not the point, what I do admire about American Beauty is director Sam Mendes' use of color. The color red is associated with romance, roses, rose petals. It's the color of passion, as I mentioned before. Thus, when Lester dreams of Mena Suvari's Angela nude, barely covered by rose petals, you might assume this is communicating passion. But she's nude in the scene, so you don't need the color to get that point, but what is else red? Stop. Angela is underage, the red, as passionate as it is, is telling Lester to stop fantasizing about this underage girl.

I am going to free associate a way to use color to tell a story. We open on a woman in gray sweats. She's home, alone, reading, gray skies in a window behind her. The color palette around her is muted, colors are there but they are dimmed by the gray of the open window. It's drab, as if life has been sucked out of the room. Gray is dominating the frame, from the window, the sweats and the way it mutes the colors around it. A knock at the door, our character goes to answer it. As she moves through the house to the door, we see a slight shift, brightness coming in, the door opens, there is a woman at the door in a bright yellow dress and a chipper demeanor. Behind this new character, the sun is coming out from behind the clouds.

As this new character enters the house the the bright yellow-orange sun is coming through the door frame lighting the previously drab interior. She enters and begins turning on lights. Suddenly, the palette of the home is completely changing. Our new character is here with a life changing offer for our main character. She's come to offer her something that will get her out of her gray sweats and into bright new colored clothes reflecting the the life changing event that this new character has come to offer and embody. Shifting from gray and muted to yellow and bright tells a story in itself, one that reflects the story being told in the dialogue of our two characters. Color is returning to a previously colorless existence.

Thought experiment. I want you to think of a way to use color to tell a story. Use cultural-societal associations of color to reveal your character. Use subtle changes in color palette to indicate change in your character's mental and emotional state. Choose a color and make it a motif in your story. I want to see what you can do with color as a storytelling device.

Writing ExercisePrompts

About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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Comments (19)

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  • Novel Allenabout 22 hours ago

    We had a color challenge some time back, we think in color all the time, the world would be a dull place without it. Congrats.

  • Ahhh beautiful

  • Christy Munson2 days ago

    Good reminder. Enjoyed your article. My nephew and I are collaborating on a series in which color (among other things) plays a dominate role. I definitely agree with your points but do caution that color, as you mention, is cultural - not all cultures interpret colors the same why. You might be a north American who sees white and thinks wedding, but friends overseas see red and think wedding. Always do your research and know your intended audience. Just food for thought. Congratulations on Top Story! 🥳

  • I didn’t write a story, but after reading your article I was inspired to write a short poem https://vocal.media/poets/the-colours-of-prison 💜

  • I loved the idea to write a story using colors! I will think about it. I loved how you took it one by one. I just see red red red. Congrats for top story! 🥳🎉🥳

  • I found this really interesting! Thank you for this 🙏🌟

  • Your insights into the cultural and emotional significance of colors were enlightening. The examples you provided, especially the analysis of "American Beauty" and the thought experiment with the shift from gray to bright colors, were particularly impactful. Your detailed exploration of how colors can subtly influence narrative and character perception is a valuable resource for writers and filmmakers alike. Thank you for sharing your expertise in such an engaging manner.

  • Caroline Craven2 days ago

    Gosh I don’t think I have ever looked at colour this way. Your article was so interesting and helpful. Thank you. … and congratulations on your top story too.

  • BrettNotGreg2 days ago

    Love this! Extremely helpful. Congrats on your top story!

  • Congratulations on your top story!

  • Fresh perspective on color in film ! Books use color too in storytelling. I love this but I disagree I liked Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty

  • Shirley Belk3 days ago

    Thank you for your tips. Powerful tools indeed!

  • Congrats on your top story.

  • MRS POPPET3 days ago

    Nicely put! Good read

  • Aiman Javed3 days ago

    Amazing article. Very useful 👍

  • Khan3 days ago

    Congratulations on the top story ❤️

  • Extremely useful article, and colour can be used in so many ways in creating visual and non visual art

  • Kendall Defoe 7 days ago

    There is a book called 'The Secret Lives of Colour' by Kassia St. Clair that you may appreciate.

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