Writing: Can Your Readers See The Light?

No, seriously. Have you included lighting in your story?

Autumn has settled in. Our days continue to shorten, and this always makes me remember the importance of light (and lack thereof). When I walk down the street in the day, everything looks normal. At night, shadows play tricks on my eyes. Sounds become more important. A rustle in the trees during the day won’t grab your attention. At night, however, is another story.

Just as lighting sets the tone and mood of a movie or a stage play, it also sets the tone for your scene. Here are a few thoughts on using light and dark to your advantage:

The type of light can matter. Fluorescent light sets a certain mood, especially when compared to the soft glow of a bedroom light. LEDs have a blue tint that might appear in a more modern setting. The soft glow of flickering candles can be romantic. (Or they can indicate a clandestine meeting of rebels in a medieval story.) Cell phones cast light as well. The uneven glow of torches can mean castle halls or an angry mob. Lanterns or flashlights might indicate a search party. Then, you can always have a little fun with gaslight… Be sure to remember light when you create a picture for your audience.

How you describe light (and dark) matters. Each scene should affect your reader’s emotions in some way. Your descriptive word choices affect the scenes mood. As mentioned above, candles can be romantic or secretive. Don’t use “the soft flickering glow” to deserve them if your characters are plotting a murder…

Light illuminates what is in the dark. This is comedy and horror gold. Think of all the things you can hide from your characters in the dark. A prowler, a spider, a bed post waiting to cause a good toe-stubbing. Flip on the lights and have fun. (Also remember all the rodents and bugs that will scurry away when you turn on the lights.) 

Light reveals truth. The shadow that appears to be a black dog in the dark turns back into a log during the day. You can use this concept symbolically or simply use it as a tool for confusing or enlightening your characters. 

Light gives hope. I can think of far too many symbolic examples of this in books and movies. If you want to douse your characters dreams, dim the lights. You can also use light to tease your characters, offering them false hope as bait. (The same goes for readers.)

Darkness lowers inhibitions. People do things in the dark they wouldn’t dare attempt in the light. From romantic encounters to club dancing to crime, remember your characters behavior changes in darkness. Even Harry Potter was more willing to sneak around Hogwarts in the dark, and he had a good cause.

When the lights are on, it’s had to see what is outside in the dark. It’s a pupil dilation thing, and most people don’t notice it, but remember this in your writing. Your characters having dinner in a well-lit dining room aren’t going to see the prowler outside. I’m typing this in the dark on my cell phone, and I see nothing in my bedroom, which is kind of freaky. On that note, it takes a good hour for pupils to fully dilate. If you have ever been to Disney World, you might notice you can see more parts of the rides at night than you can during the day, which makes no sense–unless… When you get on a ride after being in the sun, your pupils don’t dilate fully. The ride appears darker. At night, your pupils are fully dilated and you can see more. Keep this in mind with your characters.

The full moon lights up the night and casts shadows. I’ve walked on asphalt in nights with a full moon and noticed that the moonlight actually reflected off the shiny prices of rock in the asphalt. If you write military, moon cycles are key to when covert operations take place. Moonless nights and nights with cloud coverings are quite dark. (The clouds can reflect the light of the city underneath, so keep that in mind.)

What about you? Have you noticed any interesting interplay between light and dark that you have used in your writing?

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About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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