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Tag: examples

Physiological Reactions In Fiction


Descriptions of physiological reactions are hard to write well because:

  1. We all know what the feels to be thirsty/humiliated/busting to go to the toilet, so why does an author feel the need to explain it again, as if her character is any different? Why not just tell and not show?
  2. Every possible physiological response must have been written before, over and over, so how to sound original?
  3. It’s so easy to sound unintentionally comical.
  4. Certain physiological reactions can be cringe inducing unless done masterfully.

Yet now and again I come across a physiological description that’s original and engaging and poetic, and I’m filled with hope that it hasn’t all been done before. And then I think, “The field of possibles has just narrowed. I wish I’d written that!”

I wonder if anyone’s ever had a GOOD case of diarrhoea.

– @stephenfry


Feeling Hot In Summer

Wherever you went in the summer in America it was murder. It was always ninety degrees. If you closed the windows you baked, but if you left them open everything blew everywhere – comic books, maps, loose articles of clothing. If you wore shorts, as we always did, the bare skin on your legs became part of the seat, like cheese melted onto toast, and when it was time to get up, there was a rippling sound and a screaming sensation of agony as the two parted. If in your sun-baked delirium you carelessly leaned your arm against the metal part of the door on to which the sun had been shining, the skin where it made contact would shrivel and disappear, like a plastic bag in a flame. It was a truly amazing, and curiously painless, spectacle to watch part of your body just vanish. -Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

Since I come from a Land of Celcius, I had to look up ’90 degrees’. I found out it’s a measly 32.222 degrees celcius, which means Bill Bryson should make it to Australia one day. (Oh that’s right. He did.) Part of what makes Bill Bryson so funny (to many, at least) is his creation of unlikely similes. He sometimes takes something quite grand (say, a landmark river) and compares it to something everyday and unremarkable (a drink spilled across a table). He compares many things to food. (Like legs, to cheese on toast.) If you are writing comedy, it’s possible to be endlessly original about physiological reactions, because you’ve got an infinite list of bizarre imagery at your disposal.


Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent. Even children are stilled by it. I was a particularly talkative and obnoxious child, but it stopped me cold. I can remember rounding a corner and standing there agog while a mouthful of half-formed jabber just rolled backwards down my throat, forever unuttered. I was seven years old and I’m told it was only the second occasion in all that time that I had stopped talking, apart from short breaks for sleeping and television. The one other thing to silence me was the sight of my grandfather dead in an open coffin. – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

I love how the first paragraph is serious, mock poetic, with the three adjectives listed to conclude. Of course, this is a build-up to the clincher: Grand Canyon compared to an old man dead in a coffin, which I probably shouldn’t find funny, but do. Wonderful juxtaposition.


And then we’re kissing.

I lean in this time, and she doesn’t turn away. It’s cold, and our lips are dry, noses a little wet, foreheads sweaty beneath wool hats.

– from Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan

It’s very easy to sound Mills-and-Boonish when approaching anything sexual, and it’s sometimes safer to make it deliberately unarousing. The wet noses make sure of that. (Unless you love dogs, perhaps…)


It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do.

– Colm Toibin, Brooklyn

So ‘homesickness’ isn’t technically a physiological reaction. But the psychological is connected, somehow, to the physiological.

Notice the very long, run-on sentence making use of commas rather than full-stops. This echoes the feeling of ‘no end’ in sight. It’s almost always a good choice to follow such sentences with a short, pithy one, and this is exactly what Toibin has done.

Sexually Aroused

It is like a little pocket of air has rushed into her mouth and sent a little shiver down her back and tugged at the empty half-basin of her pelvic bone. She feels a prolonged and dislocated swoop in her belly and a yank of emptiness in her ribcage, and suddenly she is  much too hot. Isolde feels this way sometimes when she is in the bath, or when she watches people kiss on television, or in bed when she runs her fingertips down the soft curve of her belly and imagines that her hand is not her own. Most often the feeling descends inexplicably — at a bus stop, perhaps, or in the lunch line, or waiting for a bell to ring… Here in the hallway Isolde is thinking, Did I feel this feeling then, that night? Did I feel this jangled swoop of dread and longing, this elevator-dive, this strange suspended prelude to a sneeze?

– Eleanor Catton, from The Rehearsal

That’s the most original description I’ve read. (And in case you’d thought that was all that could be possibly said on the subject, it goes on in totally original fashion for another few pages.)

A more succinct description:

He turned to look at her…Purl felt her pelvic floor contract and she steadied herself against the bar.

– Rosalie ham, from The Dressmaker

Accurate enough, I suppose. Functional writing. Slightly comic, which is the intention. That’s the thing about making use of the correct anatomical terms. It can come across as comic even when unintended. A few years back I complained that a drink was too hot and that it had ‘burned my esophagus’. This was not met with sympathy, but laughter. Apparently it was only funny because I’d used the correct term. Besides, some body parts can’t help sounding comical, and esophagus is one of them.

I woke up half an hour later, when she sat down on my bed, her butt against my hip. Her underwear, her jeans, the comforter, my corduroys, and my boxers between us, I thought. Five layers, and yet I felt it, the nervous warmth of touching — a pale reflection of the fireworks of one mouth on another, but a reflection nonetheless.

finding alaska by John Green

A perfect portrayal of a teenage proto-relationship.


Elizabeth stared up into the darkness. She could feel, like tiny electric shocks, involuntary muscular spasms at the very core of her being, as if her body, like her mind, was trying to come to terms with what had transpired.

– Judy Nunn, from Maralinga

I don’t read much romance but I’m sure there are plenty of better examples. I’ll add a few more excerpts if I come across them. Even so, I’m thinking ‘spasm’ might be a popular choice of word.

Related Post: Why is there no good sex in fiction prize? from The Guardian.

Gasping For A Drink

Dick had not been married long and at the thought of the beautiful and curvaceous Dinah a clot of emotions lurched sweetly, a sensation he had come to terms with. It was a sensation which cried out for strong drink. Dick had found Dinah an exotic dish to have on his menu. Her presence, her absence, the very thought of her, called for a heady sauce. He took a turn around the room and peeped into the cupboard, although he knew before he opened the door that the bottle with the famous label which stared blankly back at him would be a skinner.

– Came A Hot Friday, by Ronald Hugh Morrieson

Two emotions are described above: wanting a drink, and being in love. For this character, the feelings are similar and he’s unable to fully separate the two.


I wanted to like booze more than I actually did (which is more or less the precise opposite of how I felt about Alaska). But that night, the booze felt great, as the warmth of wine in my stomach spread through my body. I didn’t like feeling stupid or out of control, but I liked the way it made everything (laughing, crying, peeing in front of your friends) easier.

(several pages later)

With her mouth half open, it occurred to me that she must already be drunk as a I noticed the far-off look in her eyes. The thousand-yard stare of intoxication, I thought, and as I watched her with idle fascination, it occurred to me that, yeah, I was a little drunk too.

looking for alaska, by John Green

Flat Out Drunk

I don’t know how many beers I had, but – I will be frank here – it was too many. I had not allowed for the fact that in the thin mountain air of Santa Fe you get drunk much faster. In any case, I was surprised to discover as I stood up a couple of hours after entering that the relationship between my mind and legs, which was normally quite a good one, had broken down. More than that, my legs now didn’t seem to be getting on at all well with each other. One of them started for the stairs, as instructed, but the other, in a burst of petulance, decided to make for the rest-room. The result was that I lurched through the bar like a man on stilts, grinning inanely as if to say, ‘Yes, I know I look like an asshole. Isn’t this amusing?’

– Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

I’ve never been drunk, myself, so all I know about being drunk is what I’ve read in books and hearing people whinge about it afterwards. I’ve heard that you don’t always lose control of your legs when you get drunk – it depends. On what, though? Anyone know?


“All right. All right. No screaming. Head hurts.” And it did. I could feel last night’s wine in my throat and my head throbbed like it had the morning after my concussion. My mouth tasted like a skunk had crawled into my throat and died.

– looking for alaska, John Green

I can’t see that being hungover is any different from any other kind of dehydration headache. Anyone willing to comment on that?

Stuffed With Food

The… plate was such a mixture of foods, gravies, barbecue sauces and salad creams that it was really just a heap of tasteless goo. But I shovelled it all down and then had an outsized platter of chocolate goo for dessert. And then I felt very ill. I felt as if I had eaten a roll of insulation. Clutching my distended abdomen, I found my way to an exit. There was no moving sidewalk to return me to the street – there’s no place in Las Vegas for losers or quitters – so I had to make a long weaving walk down the floodlit driveway to the Strip. The fresh air helped a little, but only a little. I limped through the crowds along the Strip, looking like a man doing a poor imitation of Quasimodo…

– Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

Blergh. I hate that feeling, evoked excellently here.


It was too dark to see the gemstones in the sand now. She was fighting back nausea and swallowing back a bile in her mouth that tasted like warm beer, pasta, and woody aftertones… all mixed with a hint of self-loathing.

– from Girl At Sea by Maureen Johnson

Violently Ill

Alternating waves of hot and cold washed over her, and she knew she needed to get out of the bed, but her legs would not hold. Remaining on her knees, she crawled to the door. Shaking violently, she tried once again to stand. This time her legs stayed under her, but she could not get her equilibrium. She felt as though some central ball bearing inside her that made balance possible had been knocked loose… Never had she been this sick before. Kneeling with her head over the commode, she was so violently ill that the contractions sent pain into her neck and back. Her head throbbed so that she no longer saw shapes, only patches of gray and black. She felt as if she were being turned inside out, as if she were being scoured.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood


…the urge to be sick became even more intense then before, forcing her to get down on her hands and knees and vomit a thick liquid with a vile taste that made her shudder with revulsion when she lifted her head.

The ship’s movements took on a harsh rhythm, and replaced the sense of lunging forward and then being pushed back she had felt when she woke first. … There was hardly anything left to vomit, just a sour bile that left a taste in her mouth that made her cry…

– Colm Toibin, Brooklyn


In a state of profound agitation he arrived back at Elphaba’s little eyrie atop the corn exchange. As he climbed the stairs, his bowels turned suddenly to water, and it was only with effort he managed to make it to the chamber pot. His insides slopped noisily, wetly out, and he held his perspiring face in his hands. The cat was perched atop the wardrobe, glaring down at him. Voided, washed down, and at least loosely done up again, he tried to coax Malky with a bowl of milk. She would have none of it.

— Gregory Maguire, Wicked


The room was big. He could feel its size although he could not clearly see. He could feel a cold breeze in his face, the blood in his heart. It was cold, too, the blood, and it felt as if it cracked — like ice — when his foot bumped into a soft heap on the floor. A body, a dead body.

– Christopher Pike, The Party

That one doesn’t work for me at all. I think it’s something to do with the extended metaphor of ‘cold blood’ – which is hard get away with, because it’s so old. (Truman Capote, anyone?) Not only is the blood cold, it’s ‘frozen’, and cracks, which is overdoing the metaphor.

Blomkvist shut his eyes. He suddenly felt acid in his throat and he swallowed hard. The pain in his gut and in his ribs seemed to swell.

– Stieg Larsson, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Most often ‘bile’ is mentioned in this case, to the point where ‘bile rising in one’s throat’ is almost cliche. I think it’s therefore wise that the translator made use the word ‘acid’ instead. I think I know this reaction, but I may have led a sheltered life because I can’t think of a time in which I was so shocked and frightened that I actually experienced it. I wonder if  I have a stronger stomach than most, or if it takes extreme stress to produce the bile in one’s throat (the sort of stress most often recreated in thrillers), or if this physiological reaction is used disproportionately more often in novels than happens in real life.

She woke screaming, the smell of burning fabric assaulting her nostrils… Although she didn’t see or hear anyone in the room with her, it felt like a pair of strong hands grabbed her from behind and pulled her out of the room… Vivi’s fear was so strong she could taste it in the back of her throat. So strong it caused her to pee ever so slightly in the borrowed boxy panties she wore.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Wells hasn’t mentioned ‘bile’; instead she says ‘could taste it’, which is judicious, given the aforementioned cliche.

Her head was in her hands, and when she looked up at Vivi and Pete, her black face was streaked with tears that shone silver in the fading light… Vivi could hear Genevieve’s screams coming from the master bedroom. She ran past Shirley and up the stairs. When she stepped into the bedroom, Genevieve was slapping Mr Whitman on his face, his neck, his arm, whatever she could reach. Teensy stood by herself, near the bay window, her hands covering her face.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The character of Shirley describes the involuntary scream of shock (at a son’s death) as ‘the screech howl’, which is executed perfectly in the film. One woman commented on the YouTube segment of this movie that unless she had personally witnessed her own auntie’s reaction at losing a child, she’d not have believed that this screech howl happens in real life. She would have considered it melodramatic. It does seem that people do unexpected things when faced with terrible news; some more than others, some cultures more than others.

For a moment, everyone in the gym was silent, and the place had never been so quiet, not even in the moments before the Colonel ridiculed opponents at the free-throw stripe. I stared down at the back of the Colonel’s head. I just stared, looking at his thick and bushy hair. For a moment, it was so quiet that you could hear the sound of not-breathing, the vacuum created by 190 students shocked out of air.

I thought: It’s all my fault.

I thought: I don’t feel very good.

I thought: I’m going to throw up.

I stood up and ran outside. I mae it to a trash can outside the gym, five feet from the double doors, and heaved toward Gatorade bottles and half-eaten McDonald’s. But nothing much came out. I just heaved, my stomach muscles tightening and my throat opening and a gasping, guttural blech, going through the motions of vomiting over and over again. In between gags and coughs, I sucked air in hard.

– looking for alaska, by John Green


She began to cry until tears soaked her face, her hair, her gown. She did not remember putting on the gown she wore, did not recognise it. She needed terribly to blow her nose, but she did not have a handkerchief. She could not bear the thought, but she decided she was going to have to blow her nose on the sheets.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Crying is one of those things that you can’t get away with much in a book — I don’t identify with characters who mope about and cry all the time, regardless of their circumstances. I think this has something to do with passiveness. Also, the act of crying can sort of absorb the feeling which caused it; if the character cries, the reader doesn’t have to. That said, it’s done well in the paragraph above.

Picturebooks: Where to place words on the page?

Evelyn Goldsmith suggests there is evidence to support the idea that “the placing of a picture to left or right, above or below the text, can affect the amount of time spent reading the text itself.

  • When text appears under an illustration, we tend to read the words after we have seen the illustration, because we usually look at a page from the top down.
  • Also, we tend to look at pictures first, because of their inherently attractive nature.
  • ‘The words’ or ‘the text’ when talking about picturebooks can also be described as ‘verbiage’.
  • It is most common for words to be placed to the left of a picture, when the verbiage is separate from the illustration.
  • It is equally common for a complementary layout to be organised with the visual and verbal components adjacent to one anotehr veritcally in descending ‘layers’, either with image above verbiage or verbiage above image.
  • Verbiage placed above the pictures place the reader in an ambivalent state: Should we read the words first, or look at the picture? This ambivalence can add tension for the reader at certain parts of the book.
  • Arnheim argues that the upper part of a composition always has greater weight than the lower part, an argument supported by Kress and van Leeuwen. The material in the upper portion of a vertically organised layout has the function of ‘ideal’ as opposed to the lower portion realising the ‘real’: “For something to be ideal means that it is presented as the idealized or generalized essence of the information,  hence also as its ostensibly, most salient part. The real is then opposed to this in that it presents more specific information (e.g. details), more ‘down to earth’ information (e.g. photographs as documentary evidence, or maps or charts), or more practical information (e.g. practical consequences, directions for action).”
  • “If the upper part of the page is occupied by the text and the lower part by one or more pictures…the text plays, ideologically, the lead role, and the pictures a subservient role (which, however, is important in its own way, as specification, evidence, practical consequence, and so on.) If the roles are reversed, so that one or more pictures occupy the top section, then the Ideal, the ideologically foregrounded part of the message, is communicated visually, and the text serves to elaborate on it.”
from This Is Not My Hat

from This Is Not My Hat

I Am A Bunny by Ole Rissom, illustrated by Richard Scarry. The text in the middle draws reader's eyes to the seeds in the air.

I Am A Bunny by Ole Rissom, illustrated by Richard Scarry. The text in the middle draws reader’s eyes to the seeds in the air.

  • The two most common arrangements of picture/text in picturebooks: the text on the left side of a two-page spread with the picture on the right, or the picture on the top and the text on the bottom.
Singing Away the Dark illustrated by Julie Morstad shows conventional (non-marked) word placement -- text on the left and underneath.

Singing Away the Dark illustrated by Julie Morstad shows conventional (non-marked) word placement — text on the left and underneath.

Illustration by Jimmy Liao -- interesting because there was room beside the tree, but decision was made to place text below.

Illustration by Jimmy Liao — interesting because there was room beside the tree, but decision was made to place text below.

  • “The more frequent choice for a complementary vertical layout in a picture book is for the verbiage to come below the picture, and it is undoubtedly the image that most strongly claims our attention in that case. By contrast, where the verbiage appears above the picture it seems less easy to ignore the words.” (from Reading Visual Narratives.) There aren’t enough of such texts to draw a strong enough conclusion though, so let’s just say the dominance of the text is most closely related to how much there is of it. If the pages are covered in text, obviously the text is not going to be ignored.
Mandor et Papillote, 1954

Mandor et Papillote, 1954

  • But more unusual arrangements are possible to create strong narrative effects.
I Want My Hat Back -- picture on left, text on right.

I Want My Hat Back — picture on left, text on right. This book has a non-linear narrative – soon the main character will run backwards through the book.

From 'Two Can Toucan'. Written and illustrated by David McKee, 1964. Words can become part of the picture.

From ‘Two Can Toucan’. Written and illustrated by David McKee, 1964. Words can become part of the picture.

Or you can put aside some white space.

Or you can put aside some white space.

  • So far I’ve been writing about ‘complementary’ layouts. What about when the verbiage is a part of the picture itself? ‘Intratext’ is the word used to describe words on signs, food package etc. But when the narrative is placed somewhere inside the picture rather than on a separate page, or somehow demarcated from it, we might say the text and picture are ‘integrated’.
  • Sometimes the text appears inside a speech bubble e.g. Don’t Forget The Bacon by Pat Hutchins. This technique seems to borrow from superhero comics.Don't Forget the Bacon integrated text
  • Sometimes non-speech items are projected e.g. onomatopoeia, bang, crash etc. Japanese manga feature a lot of onomatopoeia and mimesis, which is often retained (and not transliterated) when adapted for the English speaking market.
  • One way of giving text more integration with the picture is by ‘decontextualising’ the picture. Most often this is when the characters appear on a white background. While white is the most common choice, the scenes from Wolves in the Walls below are part of a dark story for older children and the white background, too, has been replaced with darker textures which look like pages from an ancient text.


Illustrating The Dark

A British company has produced a “strange, alien” material so black that it absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light, setting a new world record. To stare at the “super black” coating made of carbon nanotubes – each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair – is an odd experience. It is so dark that the human eye cannot understand what it is seeing. Shapes and contours are lost, leaving nothing but an apparent abyss.

If it was used to make one of Chanel’s little black dresses, the wearer’s head and limbs might appear to float incorporeally around a dress-shaped hole.

Blackest Is The New Black


The Colours Of Night

I have a Pinterest board called ‘Night’, because I’m interested in all the different ways artists show a viewer darkness, when in reality, night is the absence of light. If you’d never had much exposure to art then you’d be forgiven for thinking that a board full of night would look like a sheet of black. Not so! As Vincent Van Gogh apparently said, ‘I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.’

Apart from black and dark blue, various other colours depict darkness:

  • Purple
  • All the different shades of blue
  • A little more surprisingly: greens
  • Sepia tones
  • Orange (see Józef Wilkón’s picture of a boy sleeping outside in a bed. The sky (which he imagines) is orange.
The night is depicted with green

The night is depicted with green

Józef Wilkón Boy Sleeping

Józef Wilkón Boy Sleeping

How do illustrators depict night time without losing colour and form and interest?

Of course, there has to be a light source from somewhere, even if it’s just from a few stars. And there is always a light source. Light commonly comes from:

  • Moonlight
  • Lightning
  • Light coming out of windows
  • Street lamps or electric lamps
  • Torches and lanterns
  • Candles
  • Fire
  • Phosphorescent insects
  • Through keyholes and crevices

A light source can also be entirely made up:

  • From special objects, for example from the inside of open books, to light up the character’s face. The light may technically come from some reflected light on a white page, though can be exaggerated. Fantasy scenes are best suited for much exaggeration.
  • From a light source which is presumed to be slightly off-stage. Film noir is a good thing to study because you’ll find that shadows appear from unlikely light sources. Light can be artistically manipulated. A light doesn’t really have to exist in real life for the artist to make use of a convenient light source — but it’s unlikely to work unless the artist is manipulating light with purpose.

new yorker cover brightly lit city


Adolf Fassbender

Other Tricks

There are other tricks illustrators use to depict the darkness of night even when there isn’t a strong light source in the world of the narrative. Borrowing a film term, you might call these tricks non-diegetic sources of light.

1. At night scenes lose their colour, and so a simple desaturation can work to convey darkness. To maintain the focal point of the painting, an artist can desaturate some things and not others. Desaturation can be used alone to convey darkness. In fact, look at the picture and if it weren’t for the hues, it’s as light-coloured as a daytime equivalent.

shaun tan

chris van allsburg night

We know this isn't a black and white picture because the moon is yellow.

We know this isn’t a black and white picture because the moon is yellow.

2. The desaturation can take on a sepia tone, or ochre, or turquoise etc. In digital art this is easily done. Add a layer of colour over top of all the other layers (gradient, if you like) then set it to multiply. Lower the opacity to the desired amount of new hue. This same trick can be effective for daylight scenes as well, in which you can take the colour of the sky, then set it to about 5 percent opacity. This gives a unifying effect to a picture which may otherwise look quite ununified due to different elements being on different layers, or painted at different times.

The White Night by Adolf Fassbender

The White Night by Adolf Fassbender

3. A lot of artists make the moon bigger than is possible here on Earth. (Earlier in 2014 we saw the moon at it’s biggest in years, and it still wasn’t nearly as big as seen in many story books!) The moon can seem almost as bright as the sun, especially if reflecting off something light, like a blanket of snow. In illustrations where the moon might be mistaken for a sun, a crescent moon can be preferences. (Because the sun is never ‘crescent’.)

Paoli Domeniconi

Paoli Domeniconi

Although in real life the moon is sometimes visible during the day, this isn’t conventional in illustrations, where sun equals day and moon equals night. Even in night scenes without a moon in sight assume the presence of a moon. For example, in the Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight, artist Suzuki Shonen doesn’t show the moon — this would compete for attention with the fireflies, yet the moonlight reflecting off the road is evident, and the artist includes ‘moonlight’ in the title of the work.

Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight

Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight

4. If you’re not painting the dead of night, it’s convenient to add a band of sky colour on the horizon. A band of orange or yellow in the sky can tell us something about the time of day as well as lending colour to an otherwise monotone scene. Even in illustrations which are not set at sunrise or sundown, there is often an inexplicable light source coming from behind some houses or trees. The sky often gets lighter towards the horizon. In this case, it’s the top of the sky which gives the reader the night-time cues.

Notice how the sky gets lighter as it gets further away due to aerial perspective.

Notice how the sky gets lighter as it gets further away due to aerial perspective.

5. Some illustrations do nothing whatsoever with the hue or tone to convey darkness, apart from showing a character in bed, or telling us in the words that it is night-time. This seems to work! (See illustration by Gyo Fujikawa, in which the blue of the sky outside might be used equally to depict a bright, sunny day.) See also the book cover The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. The turquoise and the purple form a limited palette which the reader is used to associating with night-time. The shades themselves are bright — and therefore appropriate on a book cover for children.

by Gyo Fujikawa

by Gyo Fujikawa

6. The pink illustration by Guy Shield shows young lovers kissing at the drive-in. This example shows that it doesn’t really matter what palette you use, as long as it’s a limited one, it can suggest the desaturation of night. The viewer also knows that it is night-time because that’s when teenagers used to go to drive-in movies. So the surrounding narrative is also important.

Lakewood Drive in by Guy Shield

Lakewood Drive in by Guy Shield

7. In night time scenes some tonal diversity is still necessary — a wider range of tones makes it easier to create interest. With a little imagination, lighter tones can be exaggerated or made up. An imaginary light source is one thing, but there are also rain droplets on a window which may collectively add up to quite a light painting if there is something lighting them up. Fog and mist are also light in colour, and so a light horizon might be put down to that. Cities seem to light up from below, even in the dead of night. Bodies of water are reflective, and provide sources of light by virtue of reflection. (Presumably a moon.) In any case, a strong contrast between the foreground and the background helps greatly with night scenes. The foreground can be in silhouette (popular at the moment in games such as World Of Goo and also on YA book covers). In this case the background will be more or less in full colour. Alternatively, the foreground can be light against a dark background.

The Graveyard Book Italian Version

Total Darkness

What about when the illustrator wants to depict true darkness, possibly because the darkness itself is part of the story? How do we show darkness while still showing some sort of picture? Jon Klassen worked with this exact problem when he illustrated The Dark by Lemony Snicket. He got around it by making use of the a silhouette technique. The light parts are surrounded by large blocks of black, in which neither the viewer nor the character sees anything at all, at least not until illuminated by chinks of light.

the dark jon klassen

The same technique has been used by a variety of illustrators:

darkness outside the night

Strawberry Hill by Kurt Knobelsdorf is a painting of a house at night which is also very dark, even though there is indeed a light source coming from one of the windows and a small moon in the sky. Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui is a Japanese example of something very similar — a genuinely dark picture of dark. Even so, the three squares of light give the picture enough interest to warrant it being look-at worthy.

Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui

Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui

Strawberry Hill



Gods, Heroes and Ordinary Characters In Children’s Fiction

 The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change.

– an example of why we need to read about amazing characters, in an opinion from Anis Shivani


Gods, Heroes, Ordinary Kids


Roman Mars of the 99% Invisible Podcast has an interesting discussion with the author of a biography of Superman. It’s episode 82, here. Like me, Roman Mars finds Spiderman a far more interesting character, but as is pointed out, Superman was never meant to be relatable. Before he was known as ‘Man Of Steel’ he was known as ‘Man of Tomorrow’, in a much more optimistic age when it was thought that humankind is making its way closer to the ideal mindset of altruism for altruism’s sake.

This raises an interesting question: Where are we headed? Are humans becoming more kind or more harsh toward others? Steven Pinker thinks we’re getting less violent, for one thing. This is the main argument in his book: The Better Angels Of Our Nature.

Listen to him speak on iTunes U, in a podcast from the School Of Humanities and Sciences from Stanford.


A Psychoanalysis Of Clark Kent (from Emory University on YouTube)

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