The handbell group I rang with prided themselves on an unusually expressive musical style which they called “ringing in color.” It was a term that came to identify their performances to such an extent that they legally trademarked it. When asked about it, our director was happy to explain what the term meant to us.
“We want our playing to take the black and white notes off the page and bring them into full color,” she would say. This was achieved by careful attention to dynamics, phrasing, melodic and harmonic lines, and overall visual presentation, so the group was “as much fun to watch as it was to hear.”
I’m well acquainted with the musical practice of analyzing each line of music, looking for the climax of the phrase, searching out the melody notes which might be hidden amongst the inner voices and the leading tones in chords. I know how to emphasize notes in order to make the music more meaningful as well as more pleasurable to the listener. It’s a painstaking task, looking at a piece of music line by line, analyzing, dissecting, listening and learning to feel the best possible interpretation.
I never thought about applying this process to writing until this morning.
Beth Kephart, is one of my favorite writers and blogging friends, an author well-known for extraordinarily lyrical and descriptive writing style, the very embodiment of the “writing in color” idea. Beth is hosting a sentence challenge for NaNoWriMo participants. She is seeking “a single sentence as it was first written in the heat of a NaNo moment, and that same sentence after it has been reconsidered, revised.”
As examples, she shows us “before and after” versions of sentences from her own work in progress. The first example is perfectly functional, grammatically correct, and clearly conveys its meaning. But the revised sentence reads as smoothly as warm dark chocolate, leaving a satisfying aftertaste in the readers brain. The first sentence is a clearly black and white while the second jumps off the page in living color.
Beth has said she can spend hours, days in fact, getting one sentence just right. “I care perhaps too much about language,” she writes in a blog post. ” I want to take risks with it, yearn to push it. (…) because I think we have a responsibility as writers not just to tell stories, but to try to tell stories artfully, with originality and daring.”
I never fully understood the possibility of such an undertaking, but I’m beginning to. Crafting colorful sentences requires the skillful combination of vocabulary and grammar but also that unexplainable “X” factor which allows you to recognize when the words appear in living color. Like any skill, it takes practice and committment plus careful and thoughtful study, particularly study of other writers who are successful with this concept.
Each writers voice brings a unique style to their sentences, just as a musicians touch does to their instrument. Beyond basic good writing skills the best writers will take an extra step to compose sentences which transcend black and white ink on the page and develop into vivid colors in the reader’s mind.
That’s really writing in color.