Use Color to Test Your Story

It’s been months since I shared the saga of the injured raven vs. my beloved “pet” crows, but there’s a good reason for that. I didn’t have an ending till last Thursday. For a while I thought I did, but I needed to verify my suspicions. Ignore the colors as you read. I’ll show you cool writing trick at the end. 🙂

When the story left off, I was trying to figure out how to feed “Rave” without angering my beloved Poe and her murder. While I weighed my options, the crows scolded the raven from all directions.

I have a strict “no fighting” policy in my yard. When anyone breaks this rule, I reinforce my disappointment by withholding food till they smarten up. A wise crow doesn’t anger the human who controls a never-ending supply of tantalizing treats. Needless to say, the attacks stopped as long as Rave stayed within the property lines. If she crossed the dirt road to the woods, my rules were no longer in play, and they divebombed her.

Brilliant birds.

Two weeks later, Poe signaled for me to use her summer rock. I’d created two separate feeding areas so Dad (my husband) didn’t have to shovel the lower yard — affectionally named Animal Planet for its greenery, flowers, and throngs of wildlife who visit — and Mumma didn’t have to schlep through thigh-high snow all winter.

The change in feeding area reset Poe’s murderous hatred toward Rave. By feeding Poe and family on Animal Planet and Rave on the winter rock in the upper yard, I’d restored a modicum of peace.

Until about a week later when Rave thought Poe’s rock looked tastier than hers. Or perhaps, she remembered switching rocks in the warm weather with her dad, Odin. Hard to say for sure what prompted her to move to the woods near the summer rock when our new arrangement worked so beautifully.

Poe was NOT pleased about Rave’s decision.

For the umpteenth time I tried to capture Rave to bring her to a rehabber. And once again, she outmaneuvered me. Maybe she’d be okay on her own? The question replayed on an endless loop, followed by the grave reality of a fox, Great Horned Owl, Fischer cat, raccoon, or black bear crossing her path during the night.

Sleepless nights wore me down.

For two-plus-weeks I wrestled with what to do. Then one day I stopped looking at the situation through my eyes — human eyes — and viewed it from Poe and Rave’s perspective. Once I did, all the years of researching corvids flooded my mind with ideas.

One of crows’ amazing abilities is delayed gratification. Meaning, crows will wait for food if the food they’re waiting for is tastier than the scraps that await them now (Ravens can do this, too, but don’t when they’re injured).

With this theory in mind, I offered Poe a deal.  As the alpha, she’s the only crow I needed to convince. The others would fall in line behind her.

“Poe, if you let Rave eat, I’ll bring out your favorite treats after she’s safely out of sight.”

Now, I’d love to tell you Poe agreed right away, but the truth is, she wasn’t thrilled with the idea at first. Every time I served breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the crows emptied the rock within seconds. Just once I needed Rave to beat Poe to the rock.

It took about three days before Rave worked up enough courage to race Poe to the rock. Afterward, when Rave hopped back into her new wooded digs, I offered Poe raw chicken breast, her favorite kibble, and of course, I replenished the peanut pile.


Rave on her own special rock.

Day after day, Poe waited for Rave to eat and I made good on my promise. But then, Rave would climb up on this new rock at the tree-line to check out the menu before proceeding toward the summer rock.

The proverbial lightbulb blazed on. If I used both rocks — one for Poe and family and one for Rave — I could potentially decrease the animosity between them. And it worked. For the next few weeks, Poe never ventured near Rave’s rock at feeding time, and vice versa.

What happened next stunned me into submission.

Toward the end of nesting season, Poe sent the fledglings and elder siblings on patrol with Edgar. Shakespeare, known fondly as “Shaky” (Poe’s mini me), stayed with Mumma. Breath trapped in my lungs as Poe swaggered into the woods in search of Rave. Uh-oh. This can’t be good.

Moments later, “low-talking” indicated Poe and Rave were hashing out a few things. Shrubbery obscured my view. There’s nothing I could do but wait. Watch. Pray Poe wouldn’t morph into Hannibal Lecter or Buffalo Bill.

Seconds felt like years.

After several heart-stopping minutes, Poe sauntered out of the woods for a little worm-hunting while Shaky played lookout (since birds are most vulnerable on the ground, crows post a sentinel in the trees). To my surprise Rave lumbered right past Poe, so close the feathers on their wingtips almost touched. Rave climbed up the rock to the feast on chicken thighs, peanuts, sunflower seeds, and kibble. Poe even allowed Rave to eat the dead mouse!

That’s when it dawned on me — these two majestic animals had struck a deal.

Poe watching Rave’s six from the grass below.

With this new arrangement, Rave waited for the crows to tell her if it was safe to step into the open.

Many sharp-shinned hawks flooded our area, and an injured raven equaled easy prey.

In return for Poe’s service, Rave only ate half the food. She even tore off a piece of chicken and tossed it to Poe on the grass below. 

The good times didn’t last long.

Each year when the new fledglings leave the nest, Poe escorts the crowlettes to my yard to practice landing on branches and learn how to slalom through the maze of trees. Normally, it’s a special occasion filled with hilarity and awe.

Not this year.

When Poe brought the fledglings, trepidation surfed their wake. Rave still asked for permission to approach the rock, but Poe’s cutting glare indicated an emphatic, “Don’t you dare come near my babes.”

What could I do? I couldn’t scold Poe for protecting her young. I also couldn’t let Rave starve. A niggling sensation burrowed bone-deep for the next three weeks. Every time Poe, Edgar, and the elder siblings left to teach the fledglings crucial life lessons, I jogged down to the rock to feed Rave.

The situation wasn’t ideal for any of us, but we dealt with it. Until we couldn’t any longer.

Animal Planet turned menacing — dangerous — as a rebellious fledgling ventured past the rock into the woods, in line with Rave’s hiding spot, her home-away-from-home doubling as a hollowed bush.

Poe scolded the fledgling to back away, but he refused to obey. That tiny crow acted like he’d been sworn in as the new sheriff in town, a LEO hellbent on destroying the interloper in their midst.

The situation spiraled toward disaster.

One sultry July morning he’d had about enough of Poe’s “rules” and swooped down in full attack-mode. Ear-piercing caws tornadoed through the trees. I raced toward the woods to intervene before the others joined their brethren.

Whether this incident had anything to do with Rave’s future plan, I couldn’t tell, but she disappeared for three days. Upon her return, she stocked up on food and rested for two days. Vanished for another three days, returned for two. She seemed to have a set route to a precise location. Two days on, three days off. The routine never wavered. Two days on, three days off.

Could Rave be a mother? What if the scuffle with Poe’s fledgling convinced her to find her own? Crows and ravens have similar nesting patterns. If Rave had chicks in the nest when she got hurt, they’d be fledging, too.

More and more I became convinced that she was searching for her family during those three days away. Though this theory filled me with warmth, I still panicked every time she left. Until the day Rave soldiered into the yard with more confidence than she’d had in months, and her shiny black plumage had regained its luster.

For hours she perched on a rock near the house and exercised the injured wing. She even attempted short, low flights, about two feet off the ground for ten feet at a time. Day after day for a solid week, she waited for Poe to soar out of sight before practicing her flying, each day gaining more lift.

When I bustled down the hill to Animal Planet the following day, one flawless raven feather laid on the rock — a thank you from Rave — and I wept, keening over my loss. I’d prayed for Rave to heal, to thrive, but I never got the chance to say goodbye.

Would I ever see her again?

All summer I searched the sky for Rave. Every now and then my husband said he heard gronking in the woods, which brought me some solace. Still, I longed to see her one last time.

Two weeks ago, I had an early appointment that forced me out of the house early on a Friday morning. As I hustled up the walkway, gronk, gronk, gronk emanated from the woods across from the driveway.

I darted across the dirt road. “Rave?”

“Gronk, gronk, gronk.”

“Rave! I missed you so much!”

A black silhouette peeked out from behind a tree trunk. “Gronk, gronk.”

“I wish I could stay, but I can’t. Please come back, baby. I need to make sure you’re okay.”

A week rolled by with no word from Rave. Last Thursday, she strutted across Animal Planet with her bill held high, chest out, confidence and pride oozing off every feather. When she stepped on to Poe’s rock, disappointment crossed her face. The crows had devoured every morsel.

Rave stared up at the window. “Gronk, gronk?”

“Rave,” I called back. “One sec, honey. Be right out.”

That’s all the reassurance she needed. With her spectacular black wings spread wide, Rave leaped into the air and flew to the branch overlooking the rock. I bustled down to Animal Planet, my gaze locked with hers, my emotions rising over the rims of my eyes, joyous tears spilling down my cheeks. Rave’s healthy, happy, and loved.

Now, pull the screen away and look at the colors. It’s a rose garden. Brown = soil (exposition/narration). Red = roses (action/dialogue). Green = leaves (emotion, inner dialogue, and foreshadowing). Too much soil, you’ll have gaps in your garden, wasted space. Too many leaves will overshadow your roses. With too many roses, you can’t see the beauty of each blossom.

This technique is easy to do in Word. I wouldn’t recommend it for a blog, as it’s labor-intensive to manually input colored highlights via CSS. You’re worth it, though. 🙂

One last note: If you come across sentences that contain emotion, exposition, and/or action, it’s fine to highlight it with one color. No need to nitpick. You’re looking at the story as more than the sum of its parts.


In other news, Pretty Evil New England released yesterday!  Congratulations to Priscilla Bettis for winning the giveaway!


22 thoughts on “Use Color to Test Your Story

  1. Good way to zero in on keeping things balanced, Sue. Margie Lawson does a similar thing with her EDITS system. I think she used 5 colors.
    If I were smart enough to go back through my manuscript, I’d probably add even more colors for each plot thread in this convoluted WIP.

    • Exactly, Terry. You can break it down anyway you’d like. It’d be tough to do a whole manuscript, but it’s an easy way to test opening pages.

  2. Wow, Sue, your imaginative ways of breaking down the writing process while telling a story never cease to amaze me. That was a lot of work for you but well worth the education gained by us readers. Thanks!

    Delighted to hear Rave’s story had a happy ending b/c of your help. How do you ever get any writing done when you’re painstakingly observing and analyzing the changing needs of your flock???

    Congratulations on the launch of Pretty Evil New England–it’s a fascinating book packed with history and education couched in suspenseful narrative. Please check it out, TKZers.

    • Thank you, Debbie!

      It was a lot of work, but I don’t mind. If it helps even one writer it’s worth it.

      My office is in the sunroom, overlooking Animal Planet. Not much gets by me. LOL

  3. I use this color method with colored fonts rather than colored background in teaching. It’s easier to read. Fortunately, this transfers easily from Mac Pages to copy and paste on blog entries and my website. It’s definitely a good way for a student to look at their own works, too.

    Silly human, your story with your naive belief that you weren’t the one being trained was great. I’m sure the crows and that raven would have snickered it they could read it.

    • Hahaha. You’re so right, Marilynn. They’ve got me wrapped around their talons.

      I probably should’ve used colored font rather than highlights, but I realized that AFTER I finished. Ah, well.

  4. I love this story and your color coding method, Sue. Glad to hear that Rave’s story had a happy ending. I’m going to give your color method a whirl when I finish my current novel.

    Corvids are my favorite birds, so bright and so much personality. We have a murder or two of crows in my neighborhood. The other day, one, the alpha perhaps, perched on the metal shade of one of our streetlights, cutting a very fine avian figure.

    Thanks for a great post and a wonderful story!

    • Love that, Dale! Corvids are my favorite, too, if it’s not obvious by now. LOL Brilliant birds, indeed.

      Have fun coloring your WIP! Glad you found the post useful.

  5. Sue, what a colorful and educational post! I’m not sure I have the patience to color code my prose, but I may give it a try just to see what kind of literary garden I’ve planted.

    Great story about Rave. Your dedication to these very smart creatures is inspiring.

    Good luck with “Pretty Evil New England.” I’m going to check it out.

    • Thanks, Kay! Color-coding is time-consuming, but the payoff is worth it if a scene feels “off” for some reason and you can’t figure out why.

  6. Thanks for completing the story of your yard guest, Sue, and for all your work with the shading. I can’t appreciate your hard work entirely since I am colorblind but your description sounds extremely interesting.

    Several years ago my younger son was living in one side of a duplex. There were something like five dogs total occupying both sides and they were all constantly moving back and forth, getting along famously all the while. For Christmas I got each of them a rawhide bone and made the mistake of trying to pass them all out at the same time. Total chaos resulted. There was blood all over the place — some of it mine — within a minute. I’m glad you had better luck refereeing your guest.

    Good luck with Pretty Evil New England! Is that title self-descriptive? LOL!

    • Sounds like total mayhem, Joe! You try to do something nice for neighborhood doggies, and that’s the thanks you get. Santa Paws might not pay them another visit. Bet they loved the bones, though. 🙂

      Strangely, you are not alone. Lots of men are colorblind, with various degrees of color blindness. My husband has trouble distinguishing between blues and greens, reds and pinks. Hence why I buy his clothes. LOL

  7. Sue, it’s revelation; in a hurry to guess the reason for color lines I also discovered that you could jump from the end of any red lines to the next, finding a different rhyme.

  8. With Margie Lawson’s teachings, it’s fab to print your chapter/opening/scene and use appropriate highlighters to show all the neat things she explores. Get ready for a rainbow of ah-ha power at:

    Great post today, Sue. I have crows in my current WIP so you had me hooked two ways.
    Thank you.

    • I’ll have to check out Margie’s blog. I had no idea she created a color code. Thanks for the link, Jay!

      I incorporated crows into my Mayhem Series. Sometimes I think readers love the fictional Poe more than my main character. LOL

      • My crow is called Stone-the-Crow. I’m not sure this means anything beyond Australia…

  9. Fascinating angle and riveting story, Sue. I though Rave was a gonner but she’s back. Do I understand she has full flight again?

    I understand yesterday was crazy busy for Pretty Evil’s launch. Worth it, though, right? 🙂

    • Definitely worth it, Garry. Launch is still going strong, too. It seems that’s all I’m doing lately. *sigh* Oh, I wish I could crawl back into my writer’s cave.

      Yes, Rave has full flight! I didn’t think it was possible, either. That wing looked horrible for a long, long time. Seemed like forever. Animals never cease to amaze me.

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