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.


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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.