Green, Amber, Red

On Monday I alluded to the system I use for colour coding scenes in my writing. This works really well in Scrivener because you can set the content labels in the Inspector to use different names and colours and this will be reflected in the outline or the notecards when you use them. You can achieve the same effect by changing the colour of your headers in Word or Writer (or even just putting in a note of the colour) or by writing out a list of your scenes in different coloured inks on a bit of paper.

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When writing a scene I assign it a colour. Green scenes are quiet, peaceful or humorous. Amber scenes are ones in which tension is rising, characters are coming under stress or things are going to the dogs. Red is used for scenes of danger, conflict or argument, the moments of high drama. The purpose of this is to let me see at a glance the dramatic structure of what I am writing and chart the highs and lows.

Some people think that when writing Warhammer fiction it should be all action, action, action. This is not true. A story written constantly at one level of tension is as dull as a song that consists of one chord played very loud. You need to give readers time to absorb and reflect what you have written. You need scenes in which your characters learn the threats that face them and get worried. As this happens the reader will get worried too. They will have a stake in whatever conflict you are going to resolve in your red scenes. Once you’ve resolved the red scene, you need to give the reader and your characters time to pause for breath before moving on to the next conflict. Think of the climax of an action movie. It moves from amber to red to green just for a moment then back to amber or red. It keeps this up through multiple fake climaxes until the final resolution. There is pretty much always a quiet moment when you think the monster is dead or the villain defeated and then you find its not as you thought. It keeps escalating.

In general it’s best to open with a red or amber scene. With red you open with slam-bang action to grab the readers attention. With amber you open with something threatening or disturbing. There are some dangers with opening with a red scene. If your reader does not know anything about your characters, they have no real reason to care who is in conflict with whom. It can be done though. Robert E Howard’s astonishing opening to The Scarlet Citadel is a brilliant example of how to do this. With a series of action stories for Warhammer there is less danger of losing the reader because you can assume they know who is who and what the stakes are. Even so, it never hurts to let your reader know these things.

Once you’ve got your story up and running it’s best to mix and match scenes in such a way as you don’t see huge blocks of the same colour. Too much green risks boring the reader, too much amber means they will get fed up with the unresolved tension, too much red means they get burned out from the endless conflict. Keeping track of the colours in Scrivener lets you see when there is a danger of this happening.

In general I like to preface a red scene with one or more amber scenes to let the reader get a grip of what is going on, what the stakes are and to let the tension build.

Here’s an example from the prologue of the soon-to-be-released Blood of Aenarion. You can see at a glance the tension pattern of the story. This is most useful when you are looking at the overall sweep of a novel. It gives you an immediate visual idea of where you may have let action sequences drag out for too long, where you might want to put in some quiet reflection or where you might want to build some tension. I feel like I am danger of belabouring what is essentially a very simple but useful idea here, so I will shut up now!

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10 Replies to “Green, Amber, Red”

  1. Something I meant to ask, and am too lazy to word count to find out, but are all your chapters/scenes the same length? Or is is important that the scenes balance out, in terms of colour, more than the word count devoted to each balances?

    1. My scenes usually all end up between 800-1000 words although some are occasionally longer and sometimes shorter. I don’t actually pay too much attention to ratios of colours in these things. It’s more like a warning light on a dashboard. If I see long unbroken stretches of one colour I know I should take a look at the overall structure. I used to have a far more complicated numeric scale involving levels of tension but this one works in a finger in the air sort of way. To be honest, in the example I have given there are small green sequences in the climactic scenes, although the overall level is red. I should also say it’s about positioning. I like things to build in books to climaxes and I like chapters to end on amber cliffhangers. This system lets me see at a glance how I am doing. It’s all broad rule of thumb stuff though. It’s most useful when you start chopping and changing and moving scenes around. Without the colour coding you can lose track of the levels of tension. This system makes that sort of structural error easy to spot.

  2. What a great tip. You’ve done Scrivener a favour because this is likely to be the tipping point for me in choosing it as my writing tool.

    A valuable writing tip I doubt I will forget. Thank you!

    I must try one of your books now, as reading your work may offer more still.

    1. Your welcome, Mike. I don’t think you will regret switching to Scrivener. It is quite simply the best piece of software for writing novels and other projects I have ever used. I highly recommend David Hewson’s e-book on writing with Scrivener as well.

      1. Haven’t seen that book – will check it out. One thing that really grabs me with Scrivener is that I can use for both script and novel writing. Thanks again.

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