Scene, Conflict, Texture and Chiaroscuro in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a masterful texturizing in the sins, virtues, venalities and advantages of living. The characters and landscapes present vehicles for presenting these tiny sins and virtues on the canvas so that the reader can experience it all with a sort of clarity and contrast within each scene, a chiaroscuro. How does your narrative use voice and texture to create chiaroscuro?

Reading & Viewing


Below, in the discussion area, describe how chiaroscuro and texture are important. Use the below arc examples as you consider texture and chiaroscuro within your scene. 

Character Arc Structural (Plot) Arc Textural Arc


Character vs. Self
i.e., Janie vs. self
i.e., Janie vs. her shadow

*If you have not yet read Their Eyes Were Watching God I’m strongly encouraging you to read it now. See links above.

Story is built on conflict. As literary writers, we most often begin with the essence of our most intriguing character and that character’s primary internal conflict. Begin with a focus on character and internal conflict when drafting a first version of a short story, novel or even a single scene.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, we meet Janie as she returns home from burying her lover, after running off from her “proper” life. She is broken and vulnerable and her neighbors and friends in Eatonville assume Janie’s lover, Tea Cake, has “done her wrong.”


Character vs. Character
i.e., Janie vs. Joe

vs. Nature
i.e., Janie vs. hurricane

vs. Society
i.e., Janie vs. Eatonville vs. convention

vs. Supernatural
i.e., Janie versus God’s expectation of women

Janie battles not only the gender position of being female in Eatonville and a man’s world and a “white” run world but also the position of being human in a hurricane and “under God.” It seems that all the conventions are against her. She is an innocent, smart, strong, beautiful and capable character and we have the privilege of being with her as she takes her journey through multiple external conflicts. How does Janie, in some way, regardless of gender, ethnicity, community… embody something of you as the reader?


Imagery vs. Character vs. Place
i.e., the sun’s footprints in the sky vs. Janie vs. porches

Symbolism vs. Character vs. Place
i.e., death vs. Janie vs. coming home

Repetition vs. Character vs. Place
i.e., time vs. Janie vs. changing places
i.e., shadow vs. Janie vs. daylight

Time plays an important motif in the novel. We repeatedly return to Janie’s age and the repetition of returning home and how individuals, like water, can move out with the tide and come back to land again. Water also presents as a motif in the different forms it can take: the sea and the freshwater as in a lake or pond in which Janie communes with her organic self. She not only moves out with the sea tide—leaves home, leaves Eatonville—she also communes with her “still self” when she wades and floats in the still freshwater. The repetition of age and water within the narrative creates a texture of human passage. Do we not all experience Janie’s movements within tides and stillness in our own ways? 

Writing Exercise

Choose a scene from one of your existing works—novel, short story or short short story—and explore it within the above arcs and examples. As you rewrite this scene, focus on how conflict feeds the characters, iconic items and more.


Submit for Individualized Feedback

Please use Universal Manuscript Guidelines when submitting: .doc or .docx, double spacing, 10-12 pt font, Times New Roman, 1 inch margins, first page header with contact information, section breaks “***” or “#.”


A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.

The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Literary TermsMartin Puchner, et al.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French & Ned Stuckey-French.

Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora Neale Hurston.

Character Presentation: Indirect Methods with Rae Bryant

In this lesson we will focus on indirect methods of character presentation using George Saunders’ short story, “Tenth of December,” as our narrative exploration. 

Indirect Methods of Character Presentation

  • Authorial Interpretation: This form allows for the most versatility and “godlike” access to characters and motivations. In this, the descriptions can move around in time and with any character; however, this versatility comes with a cost. Authorial interpretation will also likely distance your reader…;
  • Interpretations by Another Character: This form of interpretation can bring the reader in close to both the character giving the interpretation as well as the character being interpreted. (Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft)

Reading Assignment

“Tenth of December”
by George Saunders

The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad’s white coat. Then requisitioned the boots he’d spray-painted white. Painting the pellet gun white had been a no. That was a gift from Aunt Chloe. Every time she came over he had to haul it out so she could make a big stink about the woodgrain.

Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived amongst the old rock wall. They were small but, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And revelled it. He would turn, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement?

Blam! (Read More)

Building Dramatic Tension And Conflict Between Methods Of Presentation

Consider the Following in “Tenth of December”:

The boy lives in a science fiction fantasy world. The narrator (author) describes the boy’s appearance and motivations. The reader gathers the boy’s descriptions through authorial interpretation. Then the boy sees “a man”:

Then he beheld, halfway up Lexow Hill, a man.

Coatless, bald-headed man. Super skinny. In what looked like pajamas. Climbing plodfully, with tortoise patience, bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt like two bare white branches sticking out of a p.j. shirt. Or grave.

What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.

Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?

Is there icing on it? he’d said.

Dad had done that thing of squinting his eyes when an answer was not quite there yet….

The boy describes to the reader this man (interpretation by another character) and the man’s motivations. The boy assumes the man is “mental.” The reader understands the man is committing suicide, but the boy assumes the man is just a confused “grandpa.” In this moment, the conflicts between character presentations of the man build dramatic tension. The reader knows something the boy does not know and perhaps fears for the boy’s safety. Is the old man dangerous not only to himself but to others? 

Writing Assignment 

  1. Open your 3,000 word or less excerpt or story that you used last week. Use this same narrative for your exercise this week.
  2. Identify the two main opposing characters. Identify and label, in the manuscript, the point at which each individual character is first introduced to the reader. Identify and label these points of interpretation. Are they direct or indirect? Authorial, by another character, etc.
  3. Rewrite these character descriptions so that one character is described via authorial interpretation and one character is described via the other characters PoV. You can do this in either first-person PoV or third-person subjective (close in on the first character’s perspective). If you have already written your characters in these methods, then use this week to explore the conflict and dramatic tension developed through these two methods. How might you deepen this?


How does the method of presentation increase dramatic tension within the narrative? What specifically does one character assume about the other character that the reader knows is not true? How might this wrong assumption support the overall conflict and arc of the narrative?

Constructing Movement through the Relationship of Space and Time

Writers need the spaces they create. The rooms, the fields, the closets that are familiar, that are unfamiliar, the spaces that act as simple symbols to tie our reveries to our memories, to the realities we wish not to disappear so suddenly. In The Sense of Beauty, Santayana writes, “In all expression we may thus distinguish two terms: the first is the object actually presented, the word, the image, the expressive thing; the second is the object suggested, the further thought, emotion, or image evoked, the thing expressed” (147). Our space reinforces our meaning and our psyche. Space coalesces our slight forms to the world around us and allows us to enlarge our heart to the proportion of mountains, or drown that weary thing at the bottom of the sea.

The speaking subject exists in his entirety in a poetic image, because unless he abandons himself to it without reservations, he does not enter into the poetic space of the image. Very clearly, the poetic image furnishes one of the simplest experiences of language that has ever been lived. (Bachelard xxviii)

A room stuffed with words, with movement, with too much furniture and too little air can create a background that becomes more than a background. It can become a space that evokes more than unease, which evokes a steady, pounding room, a room that vibrates with crisis. The space of such a room, the objects in a space— the concrete room— is where the speaker, the reader and the memory or vision becomes interchangeable.

When a writer considers the space of a story, the setting, and the objects within the setting, the writer begins to attach symbols to the surroundings. The enormous fan that has no function within the smallest, most temperate room, is even more stifling than if it were not there at all. In The Poetics of Space Bachelard says, “The purpose of space is to contain compressed time” (8) and “For a knowledge of intimacy, localization in the spaces of our intimacy is more urgent than determination of dates” (9). The urgency that is developed through the progression of a short story has limited room to shine through and provoke the reader. A writer must use every attainable weapon, even if those weapons are unattainable for the speaker.

The urgency of time is convincing enough to make us feel linear. Our natural life is diminutive; reacting against doom by filing our hours into a chronology creates a cyclical pattern of history and refutes the urgency of progression. Best Word, Best Order Stephen Dobyns writes, “Our medium is time. Not only do we constantly measure that time, but everything around us contributes to that measurement” (158). Spatial time is only an instrument to chart our chronologies; it is not concrete. For instance, imagine two astronauts that happen upon a black hole. One astronaut falls in. Though the world may never speak to him again, the world will always see him suspended in the space of the black hole. Within a black hole, time collapses and one is simultaneously falling into oblivion and frozen in time—time, in either circumstance, which occurs simultaneously, is not necessity. The body is stuck within oblivion.

Time becomes a terrible, more immediate weight when one observes another character in his relation to the universe. Bachelard notes, “Only through the accounts of others have we come to know of our unity. On the thread of our history as told by the others, year by year, we end up resembling ourselves” (99).

Keeping the role of space and time in mind, reread what you have previously written in this workshop. Give mind to each space you created—each setting in your story—and question yourself:

  1. Did you give too much time to this part?
  2. Too little time?
  3. Did you rush through a scene that will bear great significance later in the story?
  4. Did you give great significance to an object, a person, a space, that bears little weight to your story?
  5. Are there any points in your narrative that pull the reader out of the story and force him/her to evaluate exactly what is actually happening?

Look around the space of your story through the eyes of your speaker. Development movement through your characters’ interactions with the spaces you create. Give attention and detail to the moments of time and interactions of space that are greatly significant to your story’s plot. This attention may create symbols or points of foreshadowing that did not exist before.

Submit for Individualized Feedback

  • Submit your work for developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, editorial assessment and more at, where hundreds of experienced, awarded writers and editors are ready to read your work and help you make it the best it can be.