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.

Editing for Sensory Language Part 7 Movement


Remember those two hard-to-spell senses I mentioned back when I started this series? Well, now it is time to talk about them.

The vestibular sense provides feedback on our body’s balance, coordination, and movement in space.

Girl dancing. Editing for sensory language: Using the vestibular and kinesthetic senses in our writing.

The kinesthetic or proprioception sense lets us know how our bones, muscles, and tendons are functioning. Without these two senses, we would be little more than puddles on the floor.

These two senses provide a rich resource for writers – especially those writing in close point-of-view. After all, we don’t want our characters acting like worms. We want them to move through our scenes in natural, but interesting ways. So if you are tired of characters walking, stepping, and turning over and over, think kinesthetic and vestibular.

Describing Kinesthetic and Vestibular Movements

Probably one of the best methods for describing characters’ movements is to take a tip from dramatic performers and use your own vestibular and kinesthetic senses by acting out those movements yourself.

In particular, since our characters rarely walk around naked in a smooth undifferentiated setting (although that sounds like a great start for a sci fi story), examine environmental elements that limit their ability to move freely.

Act It Out

If possible, try to do the movements on a similar surface and wearing similar type clothing as your character. Be conscious of how you find and keep your balance. What does it feel like to climb up stone steps wearing winter snow boots? Or waltz in dew-covered grass wearing sandals? How does your body move differently when the surface underfoot is slippery or uneven or steep?

How does your clothing affect the range of your muscle and tendon motions and the awareness of your body in space. Consider the direction and up and downward motion of your body.

Watch It in Action

If it is not possible to act out the movements, a good substitute is to watch videos of people moving like your characters do. You can find almost any action on YouTube using simple search terms such as “running” or “climbing a ladder”.

Here, for example, is a video found by searching for “climbing a fire escape” (not something I would ever consider doing myself) for my WIP.

In the video, it is easy to see how the climber’s body finds balance by swinging and reminds me as a writer to include swaying and kicking and twisting of the torso and not just a focus on the hands clinging to the rungs. It also demonstrates how the body movement changes as the climber tires.

Adding these elements to the written description, will go along way to deepening the reality and improving the reader’s reading experience.



When to Add Kinesthetic and Vestibular Movements

Keeping characters moving is key to keeping reader interest. Movements can be added to almost every scene and paragraph. But there are some spots where movement is especially important. When editing check these spots and make sure movements are described in terms of balance, flexing of muscles and bones, position in space, surface footing and clothing limitations.

  1. Any time a character goes from one place to another.
  2. When a character is handling or moving an object.
  3. During a fight scene.
  4. During a love scene.
  5. If the environment changes in a way that forces the character to move, such as a sudden rain or a falling tree.
  6. Any time the character changes position – gets up, lies down, etc.

Some Movement Examples

These examples are from my novel Close to the Skin

Shaking off the constant pounding beneath his skull, he arched his back and brought the cuffs down lower. The sides of his hands scraped against the concrete. His own weight drove the metal of the cuffs deeper into his wrists. His arm muscles stretched past bearing. His shoulders cramped.

She seized Hanger’s hand, placed her foot flat against the gate and used her momentum to push herself up and over. Her belly scraped across the metal bars, and her shin smashed hard into the iron rail.

Keeping one foot on the railing, she flailed around until her sole caught the edge of the sash. Heart banging against her ribs, she pushed up, found a toehold on the top of the window frame, then a projecting brick. With a final tug from Hanger, she flopped up and over, the air whooshing out of her as she landed with all the gracelessness of a hooked fish, her face scraping on the rough tar of the roof as she slid to safety.

Movement Resources for Writers

Body Types and Movement

Clinical Terms for Body Movements

Direction Word List

How the Body Moves

Movement in Drama

Physiology of Body Movements

Up and Down Movement Words

Word List of General Movements

How do you go about describing your character’s movements?

Share an example from your WIP below.