Cathy and I had our house painted last week. We chose a color called Dress Blues for the front, a color that’s almost navy but not quite. When the first coat went on, we were mortified. It was electric blue, neon blue, Pepsi can blue. It hurt the eyes. Boy, did it ever. The painter told us not to worry; the color wouldn’t look like that when it dried. It would darken and look like the color we chose. About an hour later, the boss man from the painting company dropped by, and we expressed our concern to him. He held the Dress Blues color card up to a place where the paint had begun to dry. “Looks pretty close to me,” he said, and we agreed. Yes, it looked pretty close. Still, at the end of the day, we went to bed wondering exactly what we’d done. We wondered all through the next day, Sunday, when the painters didn’t work. It wasn’t until Monday, when, they painted the white trim that we saw the shade of blue looking more like we thought it would. Something about the contrast between the blue and the white made the blue look darker. It lost that electric sheen. Then it was time to paint the front door. We’d chosen a yellow because Cathy had always wanted a yellow door, and we thought it would look good with the blue. “You’re not Michigan fans, are you?” our painter boss man asked when we gave him our color choices. “We better not be,” Cathy said. “My husband teaches at Ohio State.” Privately, we reconsidered our choice to go with a color scheme close to Michigan’s maize and blue. We even went back to the paint store to gather more color cards—anything but yellow. We found a light blue we could have lived with, but I could tell that Cathy really wanted yellow. “Do it,” I said. “Let’s be bold.”
And that’s what I say to anyone reading this who happens to be a writer. “Let’s be bold.” Sometimes we must take chances to create something spectacular, something out of the ordinary, something unforgettable. Here are some ways to lift your work from the familiar to the unique.
- In any scene, consider the most outrageous thing a character might do. Keep in mind that outrageous doesn’t necessarily mean sensational. No axe murderers, please. Something slightly quirky will do.
- What’s the one thing a character has always wanted to say to another character? Find the right set of circumstances—the right pressures—to bring that previously unsaid thing to the surface. Dramatize it and then follow its consequences.
- Look for the surprises in characters, settings, plots. Don’t settle for the ordinary. Let your characters reveal parts of themselves that even they might not know. Be so intimate with the setting that you know the surprising elements of the landscape or the culture. Be on the watch for believable twists in the plot. A character’s action, for instance, may intend one thing but end up creating a completely different result.
- Push moments of tension. Don’t hold your characters back. Let them give expression, either verbally or via action, to what they usually keep hidden from others.
Cathy and I ended up being very pleased with the way our house turned out. The lesson for writers in all this is to not restrain yourself. Go to the dark places, the hilarious places, the odd places. Shake up the worlds of your stories. Paint the house blue, the door yellow. See what you can create by not settling for the expected.