What Can a Writer Learn from the Principles of Art and Design?

To compose means so many things. It means put parts together. Arrange and rearrange. Intentionally design. To balance, control, and manage until everything flows together as a unified whole.

I may be a writer now, but my background was originally in art. In fact, one of our family jokes is that I was the art major, but now I write novels, and my sister, the English major, became a professional fine artist.

As a fine artist, I composed with color, line, shape, pattern, texture and more.

As a writer, I compose with words, meanings, sentences, punctuation, paragraphs and more.

Both fine art and writing require creativity and hard work. They also require an understanding of structure and principles. Surprisingly, the same principles used by an artist can inspire excellent writing as well.


An artist must choose one major element to be the focus of their art work—the spot where the viewer’s eye is attracted to first.

Likewise, a novelist should choose some element in their story that draws the reader’s attention. Most often this is the struggle and growth of the protagonist. But it could also be the theme or the emotional tug on the reader, or a major event such as a war or crime.

Some Ways to Add Emphasis to Your Novel

  • Make the focus apparent on the first page either by saying it in a creative way or showing it through character actions and thought.
  • Devote the most description, inner thought, and action in the story to this element.
  • Mention the focus element on almost every page.

For more on adding emphasis, including the use of punctuation, read Pace, Pause, and Silence: Creating Emphasis and Suspense in Your Writing by Lorelei Lingard.


Contrast is related to emphasis. In order to make one element stand out in an artwork, the other elements must contrast in some way, such as in color, size, position, clarity. A writer does the same. For example, to make the protagonist stand out, other characters must play a lesser role.

Some Ways to Add Contrast to Your Novel

  • Give each character a unique appearance and vocabulary or voice.
  • Add surprising contrasts, such as a pleasant setting in which something horrible happens. Or have a nasty character do something kind.
  • When an important character action or event occurs have it move from a dark setting to lighter one.

For more on how to add contrast, read Andrew Gallagher’s Scene Contrast.

Balance & Alignment

An artist tries to balance the art elements in their work adding just enough of each to form a harmonious whole. Symmetrical design, in which everything on either side of a center dividing line, is the most balanced and calming.

A writer needs to do the same. Too much inner thought or description can slow the pace of a novel almost to a standstill. Too much straight action or dialogue can leave the reader confused as to character motivation and beliefs.

Some Ways to Add Balance to Your Novel

  • Balance highly active scenes with calmer, more reflective, ones.
  • In long sections of dialogue, make sure character actions, setting, and mood are reflected through dialogue tags and interspersed description and inner thoughts.

To learn more about balancing story elements, see Gloria Kempton’s How to Balance Action, Narrative, and Dialogue in Your Novel.


An artwork needs not only to capture the viewer’s attention with the focal point, but then must move that viewer’s eye around the entire work. An artist does this by locating other interesting elements in such a way that the eye circles in a triangular or spiral motion.

A writer cannot just emphasize one element of the story. That element must be building to a climax and resolution. This is what creates the up-and-down plotline of the story. In most plot templates.

Some Ways to Add Movement to Your Novel

  • Show the character or focal element being propelled by the forces that in conflict.
  • Show the character moving during reflective thought and dialogue.

For more on adding movement to your writing see Shaun Levin’s Never Just One Thing.

What other art elements do you think can be applied to writing?

Please post your thought and comments below.

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