The Curtains Were F***ing Blue

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I am going to talk just briefly about author intention, reader comprehension, and theme.

I recently got into a Facebook argument over this picture. (I know, getting into Facebook arguments only leads to bad things. Consider the lesson learned.) The argument involved several authors on both sides of the fence. In my personal opinion, if the curtains were “just blue,” then there would be no reason to call attention to them. Color symbolizes a great deal in literature (and if you don’t believe that everything has meaning, I recommend this book). Blue curtains means something entirely different than red or yellow curtains. And as an author, you should always be aware of the choices you are making, however mundane.

Also, it can be confusing to readers to put details in that don’t end up paying off. Here they are, trusting totally in you, and reminding themselves: “Okay, the curtains are blue. She mentions this several times. I bet this is going to be important later.” And if it’s not important? Your reader will feel some unresolved discontentment, however small.

On the other side of the debate was the idea that, just like in real life, not everything has to have meaning. For example, if we were to walk into my room (ignoring the clothes, craft supplies, knick-knacks and books EVERYWHERE), the fact that my curtains are ill-suited for keeping out light and are patterned with worn leaves and roses doesn’t really mean anything except that I’ve been too lazy, since the day I moved in, to buy new ones.

But does it mean something?

I still contend that, even if the blue doesn’t necessarily reflect on a theme (thought it might)–say of water/rebirth, or of sky/freedom, or of dejection/introspection–it certainly does reflect on the mood and character. That choice (or lack thereof in my personal case) means that the character chose blue curtains. For what reason, we may never know, but the character certainly didn’t choose orange ones. And that says something.

I’m curious where my fellow critique buddies (and other writers) are on this. Are you aware of these details? Are you always mindful of theme? Or does it really not matter, especially in more genre-driven stories?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Curtains Were F***ing Blue

  1. Ooh, great post. I haven’t thought about this in this way lately. I’ll admit, all the symbolism my high school teacher claimed for THE SCARLET LETTER drove me nuts. But that was me, the reader, not me, the writer. (Also, that was me, the poor eleventh grader who wanted to be writing fiction, not papers about other people’s fiction and their symbolism).

    The shorter a piece, the more details matter, but such things *should* be applied to longer works, too. Maybe I don’t figure that stuff out in a first draft, but I definitely think about it and try to make it come together in later drafts. Often I’ll notice I’ve generated subtle meaning in something by accident, and I’m proud of my subconscious.

    The pattern on a character’s sheets means something, yes. The clothes she chooses, the accessories he wears, the things a character chooses to surround herself with. With curtains, as an aspect of setting, this could be about creating tone/setting the scene instead of solely about character. Of course, I do think sometimes, while details might give us insight into a character’s personality or emotional state, I don’t think these things necessarily always relate to an overarching theme or greater symbolism. But maybe it would be great if they did! Is creating such links the mark of a more experienced writer?

    I completely agree with the point (made twice on purpose? 😉 that emphasizing details that don’t pay off is a violation of your reader’s trust. And while details have meaning, they maybe don’t stretch quite as far as some interpreters would have their students believe.

  2. Haha, it was so late I had no attention to detail left…

    I mean, yes. That was on purpose.

    (Original post edited)

    I like your process–sort of letting meaning develop, and then refining it on further drafts. I think that I go in with meaning in mind and try to jam it into the story, which I’m trying to work on doing less of.

  3. I took a ‘Journalism as Literature’ class in college, where we discussed the symbolism in Hunter S Thompson’s “Kentucky Derby” ad nauseum. A week or two later, Thompson was doing a reading nearby, so a bunch of us went to listen; and one of the other students in the class asked about a detail we’d been discussing.

    In his typical caustic manner, Thompson said, “Symbolism? There’s no fucking symbolism. I was high as a fucking kite!” 😛

    Myself, I write like Taylor: without thinking of the symbolism. Sometimes it shows up anyway, and then I’m also proud of my subconscious: often I’ll think of something when I’m revising, and add it in.

    When I read, it’s the same thing: I don’t think about symbolism until I’ve read a piece a couple of times (which means I hardly ever think about it). Most of the time things like that only click when other people mention something they’ve seen in a story.

    • Hah! I love that. Thompson, what a rapscallion.

      On a comment about this blog on my facebook, I also wanted to say that author intention (obviously) doesn’t mean very much at all. If there is meaning there, whether or not the author intended it, people will find it.

  4. This post cracked me up! I’m working on my book now with a friend who always calls me out on these things. I’ll say the curtains are blue and she’ll make it a point to ask me why? It drives me nuts, but I see the value in it. It’s all part of the “layering” process right… Great post Becca!

  5. Pingback: What The Hell Just Happened?! | mugsters

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