Lighting for Writers

Picture this; you’re writing a climactic scene in the Great American Novel. You eagerly describe the awesome cool sword-fight pitting the tortured, but handsome police detective against the evil, but even hunkier vampire in the night-shrouded cemetery, while the blonde-haired and surprisingly comely anthropology student watches with baited breath from her position bound to a tombstone, describing every flash of steel, every ripple of sweaty muscle visible through the detective’s conveniently ripped shirt….

And then when your friend is reading it, instead of appreciated its obvious literary merit he can only ask, “Wait, if it’s a cloud-veiled night in the middle of a decrepit cemetery, how the heck can the hunky detective see enough to sword-fight the vampire?”

In both writing and reading, I’ve found that in composing a scene one the most important, and yet easily forgotten elements is lighting. If you are going to have any kind of visual description of what’s going on, then that requires light, which carries with it the implied question of where the light is coming from.

If the scene is set during the day, or inside a normal house after dark, then light can be pretty much taken for granted. There’s the sun, or electric lights, or whathaveyou. The light isn’t really important unless you want to go for mood.

But what if the scene is set in a cave? Or out in the dark woods? Or during a blackout? Or even just in the evening, in the half-light as the sun goes down? Such a setting will immediately start to pose limitations to your characters that might not be immediately obvious.

For instance, if it’s dusk and the sun is already below the horizon, your naively romantic heroine can still more or less navigate without trouble, but she’s probably not going to recognize her kindly PE teacher with a dark secret coming across the field until he gets pretty close. Or if she needs to read off a vital bit of scribbled information, she’s going to need a flashlight.

Then say you’re in a night scene, or in an old dark house armed with a flashlight. Remember, the flashlight isn’t going to cast complete and uniform illumination over the entire room; it’ll be a cone of light falling off rapidly on the edges. There can be something in the room with your intrepid hero without him getting a good look at it; just a weird sharp skittering on the edge of the beam.

This is surprisingly difficult to stay consistent on. You want to be able to describe the scene and all the sensory details, and so you easily forget that, realistically, those wouldn’t be visible. Lighting is a tool, but once you use it a certain way, you have to abide by the limitations that implies, and it’s easy to forget about them.

A good example of this is the Morrowind jvk1166 ‘Creepypasta’ short, where the premise is that the narrator has downloaded a weird mod for the game Morrowind, which causes eerie effects when you follow a particular quest line. One of the effects is that the world becomes extremely dark, so that the only way to see anything is up close and with a very strong light spell. Only, he then goes on to describe navigating from place to place to observe the other effects, searching the areas around settlements for vanished NPCs, seeing people in the far distance, and so on; things that would realistically be almost impossible under the described conditions. Indeed, playing at all with near zero visibility wouldn’t really be possible. (It’s a pretty good story overall, especially as creepypastas go, but that’s one of the parts where it slips).

Basically, when you think up your scene, try to put yourself into it and picture not just what your senses perceive, but equally importantly what they can’t perceive. Go out walking at night, away from streetlights and get a sense of the experience of being in a world of shadow, vague shapes, and half-seen movement. Try walking about with a flashlight and see how it illumines the room or the space you are in.

I remember once I was in the UP (Upper Peninsula for those not in Michigan), staying in a little house by the lake. I sat out with a bonfire, watching the sun set and the stars come out. Some time after sunset, when there was just a faint glow in the sky, a herd of deer wandered down by the shore. I couldn’t really see them, but I can vividly remember the sound and the half-visible sense of movement as they spooked and ran for it in the dark.

Lighting is just as important in writing as it is in the visual media, so take the time when you’re crafting a scene, especially a night scene, to figure out where the light is coming from and how it will affect how the characters perceive the situation. It’s not just a matter of making the scene feel more convincing, but also a chance to create some atmosphere and get creative with your descriptions.

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