Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Many Genres Writing Tip from Michael A. Arnzen

The other day I stumbled upon a website that made these neat pieces of art by compressing every frame of a film down to a teensy ribbon only one pixel in width, then lining these ribbons up side-by-side, sequentially in the frame. The site ( calls these images "movie barcodes" but it's much cooler than that sounds: the result is a beautiful curtain of color and shade. It's artful because it changes the way you think about the movie, compressed down into a visual summary that you can't really sort out logically, but upon closer study nevertheless effectively captures the "feeling" of the entire feature-length film.

[ Example: Blade Runner from]
This capture of the emotion of an entire story in a single frame is very compelling to me. In a way, it's sort of like our memory of the whole movie, condensed down into one inexplicable image that captures our experience. It is an emotional summary. These compressed films, these "movie barcodes," reveal the way the cinematographer and director used a spectrum of color and composition across the whole movie to shape our emotional responses to what we see (whether they intended to or not). The patterns are fascinating, and imply a great deal about the subtle ways our reactions were shaped. Scanning one of these movie barcodes from left to right, you can tell at a glance when the film may have slowed down in pace (therefore creating straight horizontal "bars" of repeated color, or clusters of similar tones) or you can see when the director may have intensified the action (resulting in rainbow effects or chaotic diagonal-lines suggesting shifty camera movements). There are moments when lighting darkens, suggesting doom and gloom, followed by brightening bars of light, suggesting a change in the characters or world. And we see all this in the patterns of color alone.

Change is everything. As colors change across the picture, the image implies different moods that emerge from various regions of the plot, as the story moves from beginning to end.

I wondered what my novels might look like if they were compressed and rendered in the same way.

The lesson here is that sometimes it is what we don't see, but what's still there, that gives shape and structure to our stories. Writers might consider outlining the mood (or other subtle elements) of their story in the same way that they outline their plots. Color code it. It pays to think about how expository cues--like colors, symbols, shapes and other images--change over the course of the novel, giving shape to not only the mood you hope to set in any one scene, but how that mood moves the reader across the whole book. Too often we put all of our attention into the obvious actions and the external character changes when plotting out our books. It's all foreground. We shouldn't forget to think about the chronology and coherency of the background, too.

One time-tested trick for setting a mood, for instance, is to use the weather in the setting to suggest the emotions of any given scene. But that scene is just one ribbon of time. Don't just think about the weather in isolation--weather is constantly in flux, moving one season to the next. Seasons can change over the course of the book, depending on the chronology of your story. Have you thought about these? Have you chosen the best span of months to set this story? Map the motion of time--these changes in weather patterns--out carefully, and your book will have a natural and more meaningful feeling that the reader will intuit. Likewise, time of day for any given scene can transform a setting from "dark" to "light." Pay attention to this from scene to scene. Avoid writing a story that--if compressed in the reader's imagination--would just be one big emotional bar of the same color. The last thing you want to do is put a lot of work into something that emotionally flatlines. As characters change, so too should the backdrop that we see them framed within. Construct your book so that it creates a curtain of emotional color and it will feel more three dimensional, more transformative, and more natural in the way the stories moves over time than it otherwise might.

Contributor: Michael A. Arnzen

Articles in MGOC: "Genre Unleashed"
"Tuning Up Your Writing"
"The Element of Surprise: Psyching Out Readers of Horror,
Mystery and Suspense"
"Making Modern Monsters"
"Working the Workshop: How to Get the Most Out of Critique
Groups (Even the Bad Ones)"


Other Work: 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2007)


You can purchase Many Genres, One Craft, edited by Michael A. Arnzen and Heidi Ruby Miller, through any of your favorite book sellers, including Amazon.


  1. Mike, I have never heard of this technique before! Leave it to you to find something this interesting, then apply it to writing!

    Wonderful tip.


  2. I love this concept of mood tied to weather, and have tried to infuse that into my writing. Love the idea of the ribbon of color - not surprised by Blade Runner!

  3. I thought I recognized Rutger Hauer in the strip above.

  4. That IS very interesting! n YES, i do c blade runner n that!