Helena Writes #33: On "The Writer's Palette"

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
Date Posted:
4/8/2021

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 33rd post, she explores the elements of good, evocative writing through the lens of being first a painter. Enjoy!

I often mention to students what I call “The Writer’s Palette.” I call it that because I was a painter before I wrote. Most of my parallels come from painting; there is such a correlation. Color, design, line, tone/value, contrast, complexity juxtaposed with simplicity, cohesion. 

Here is the way I articulate “The Writer’s Palette”: narrative—the a, b, c, d, e, and f of the story. It starts here and ends here. Between those two “heres,” a story has been communicated from the writer to the reader.

Dialogue: bits and pieces of spoken language.

Internal dialogue: the main character speaking to herself. Her thinking. “I’d better not do this,” she thought. Or, her spoken words: “No, I can’t wear that hat,” she told herself. Those words can be spoken inside. “Do not do this, Helena. Do not!” Those words went through me, and I tore up the letter.

 Action description: “…and I tore up the letter.” 

“Should I go out?” he wondered, pulling back the curtain to see if the rain had stopped. “Should I?” Now he’d spoken it, as if asking the room itself. He shook his head, as if to push away the thought. “It’s cold and damp,” he continued. He crossed the room to the woodstove and picked out a log from the wood box that would last the afternoon. He opened the stove door, used the poker to stir the embers where he then rested the log. He closed the stove door and watched the log catch. “No,” he repeated to his cat. “I’ll prepare a simple dinner.” He lifted her, smelling her long, lovely amber fur. The cat settled onto his shoulder, purring. “I’ll go tomorrow,” he said quietly.

This is dialogue-interlaced action, the description of action.

There are passages of dialogue that can work without action or description—short bits and incomplete sentences, or some profound exchange in which the speakers are clear as characters.

Then there is description. What is someone wearing? What do things look like?

Then, the five senses. How does the air smell? Like lilacs? Like a long-stewing tomato sauce? Taste. Touch. She brushed the velvet of the couch, just barely, with her fingertips. She touched the stove. It was still warm. She must have just missed him.

Sound. The train clattered, steel wheels on steel tracks. It was a lovely sound. Sparks lit the tunnel, blue lights streaked past. They had a long way to go to the station, when the train would slow. The hot sun shone on my face. Shone through my eyelids, making kaleidoscope patterns of green and red. I bit into the apple. A riot of sensation erupted on my tongue. “Too tart for eating!” I said out loud. Sauce, I thought as I walked home. I’ll come back with a bucket and pick some. I’ll make it this afternoon.

That’s all sensory writing. Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.

Then there is back story, or history. The sky was darkening. She pulled at the oars. Her father had been struck by lightning. It had scarred his hands and feet. She’d grown up knowing that story. It was written in her own flesh.

And there are any number of things that can be woven together to tell a story. Dreams, memories, aspirations—it’s endless. 

Drafts are really the first words that express the thing a writer is trying to get down on paper. Sometimes it’s all narrative. Sometimes it’s the most lovely language. Language I will guard with my life! Until I face that it’s got to go. Sometimes all the sentences are very long, connected by and, as, but, two parts with content and meaning that need to stand on their own to have impact, to convey to the reader what it is they are saying. They’ll have to be broken up. Short and long sentences, rhythm. Another element. As in painting, rhythm is the juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity. Beautiful lyrical sentences, terse, spare, plain, austere passages, that work together to tell a story well. Using these elements effectively comes with time and the practice of writing.

A first draft, with crafting, begins to live in another dimension. And, paradoxically, the words disappear. They become pure conveyance of experience. Pure story.

“The Writer’s Palette”: colors you can use with a brush, mixed, darkened; it is not a perfect metaphor. A tool kit, a tool bag of the elements of writing—that’s another way to say it. After a while, one gets the feel for the infinite potential of crafting sentences, paragraphs, and words. When you discover the richness that language and writing holds, you’ve entered the world of the artist. And there is no going back. 

What elements of “The Writer’s Palette” do you rely on most in your writing? What ones would you like to develop? What do you think of Helena’s latest column? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

Want to receive tips and inspiration like this in your inbox every Sunday morning? Join our email list community! You will receive weekly advice, a year’s worth of weekly writing prompts as a FREE download, and be eligible to participate in our monthly photo prompt contest for a chance to share an original piece of writing with our community of more than 1,500 writers.