Posts Tagged ‘backstory hints’

Page to Screen and Back—Bringing in the Light

March 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Anyone can write a story, but not everyone can illuminate with their words.

One of the components of effective writing is attention to lighting elements within the storyline. A storyline always has a setting and characters, and a setting can dictate much of the story. Each setting has a unique cluster of physical traits. One of those is lighting.

The trick of using lighting in writing is to accentuate those innate traits.  Any character can flip the switch on a lamp to illuminate a room. It’s the writer who doesn’t always use a “written” lamp to spotlight important facets of a passage who garners great credit scores.

Light Informs the Mind

An easy way to examine the criticality of lighting is to watch TV. Viewers of the three CSI series don’t have to hear the theme music or see the credits to know which of the three shows is on the screen. No people have to be present. Each series has lighting specific to that series.

Most CSI Las Vegas episodes take place during nighttime hours. Lighting used in lab scenes highlights instruments and individual work sections. The mood created is one of a cave-like work space hidden from view or protected from the searing desert sun. Outdoor scenes filmed during the daytime have a muted, almost dusty, light that’s inherent to the desert during early morning or late afternoon. Outside night scenes reflect the glittering lights of its location.

CSI Miami uses its setting to infer a much different mood and feel. The light used is vibrant and harsh–primary colors are favored. Most episodes are filmed with sun-filled outside scenes. The labs explode with light from expansive windows and slick surfaces that reflect that light, and the main character goes nowhere without his sunglasses. The filming technique used also accentuates the natural light to create a visual clarity not found in the other two series.

CSI NY has another unique visual setting. The viewer is taken into the cluttered, dirty streets of New York City. The light is flatter, less defined, and dim. All those skyscrapers tend to keep the sunlight at bay. Because of the setting and its demands, all outside shots can appear depressing. The labs are unique for both architecture type and lighting. The setting with the lighting screams New York City as the stereotype here.

 Light in Literature

The old standard “It was a dark and stormy night” became cliché because it was an excellent beginning line. It cued the reader with lighting. Horror movies have mastered lighting to help tell the story. After the opening two minutes lighting has already left its message.  

The same power holds true for novelists and short story writers. It’s a matter of words and their use. Word usage changes simply by stepping into the scene as it’s being written.  When the writer experiences the scene behind eyelids¸ sensations and impressions reveal the story. It’s automatically showing rather than telling. The writer can see the appropriate lighting in the setting. Good lighting allows cues for the reader about shifting characters, setting and much more.

Here’s an example of a tiny use of lighting that brings mood into play that foreshadows and hints at backstory. In Mercedes Lackey’s book, “Sacred Ground” she needs to establish a new primary character without adding loads of description.

“He was posed right under one of the porch lights, and she couldn’t help but make mental comparisons with the guy she used to know. The guy she used to know wouldn’t have posed like that, making a macho body-language statement, clearly blocking her way…”

Lackey gives the reader an immediate chance to relate and visualize the scene. She doesn’t have to say that his arms are crossed. She doesn’t have to explain why he’s behaving as he is—at least not until later. The reader knows now that there’s history between the two characters and it didn’t end pleasantly. The “porch light” spotlights this character as important in the future and gives the reader a taste of his personality. It served its purpose well.

The high fantasy writer, David Eddings uses large numbers of characters and settings. He’s a master of the genre. Here is an excerpt from one of his books in series, “The Seeress of Kell.”

“The office in Yar Nadrak of Silk and Yarblek’s far-flung commercial empire was in a loft over a cavernous warehouse filled with bales of furs and deep-piled Mallorean carpets. The factor was a squint-eyed Nadrak named Zelmit, who was probably almost as untrustworthy as he looked…”

Here the reader learns many things about three people. Silk and Yarblek are rich, commercial traders of some kind, and Zelmit has squinty eyes and looks untrustworthy. What is the lighting like in crowded warehouses in high fantasy? One could hazard a guess that it’s dark, dim at best. Perhaps Zelmit’s squinty eyed-visage occurs due to the lighting, perhaps not.

The setting is a warehouse where goods are stored. The crowded goods would negate much ambient light, whether from high windows or lanterns. Since the goods are flammable, logic would expect those lanterns to be carefully shielded most of the time. It’s this ability of Eddings to allow readers to fill in with logical conclusions that sets his writing apart. All of the lighting in this scene is inferred, yet the reader figures it out quickly and moves on.

Bringing Things to Light

Inference can do much of the writers work without adding word count. In fact, if the writer uses strong descriptive nouns and verbs, little extraneous description is necessary. Here are some examples of illumination without padding.

“Gillian’s surfer good looks drew every eye. Sun rays escaped late afternoon clouds to spotlight her while she selected a champagne flute from a passing waiter. Peacock blue brocade suited her well.”

“Alaska was having a good winter. Snow rose to meet the roof on the west side. Iditarod dogs and their owners would arrive in half an hour. He glanced across the runway. Mary had readied the welcome party for the first load of participants. He hoped the new racers would appreciate all the work she’d done to make them feel warm and at home. He’d taken care of the fireplaces. She’d worried with candles. Now, if he could keep the flame pots burning until the plane landed, everyone could sleep well tonight.”

Both of these paragraphs use light in different ways. The first informs the reader that the scene is happening either in late afternoon or at twilight. The inferred gathering involves champagne which connotes party, probably more formal in nature. If Gillian is wearing brocade, it’s definitely more formal and chilly in temperature. Brocade is a heavy fabric. Gillian is likely physically fit with a deep tan since her looks are equated with a surfer.

The second paragraph tells a different story. It’s set during an Alaskan winter. Heavy snow blankets the area. It’s dark all winter in that state. They are using fireplaces (logical) and candles (also logical.) The flame pots for the runway mean that electricity probably isn’t working there at the moment, or it’s a small private strip that doesn’t have runway lights. The feel of the place and the characters comes through to the reader.

Lasting Impressions

The writer needs to be his own lighting director. The mental movies he writes contained inside book covers require the best illumination possible. Regardless of storyline, characters, or settings, the writer who can create subtle bits of light which leave an impression holds the reader’s attention.

It doesn’t matter on the last page of the novel what writing devices were used specifically. Writers can use blatant or subtle cues. They can use light to help build their characters without using direct description. Also, they can create a mood which can transport the reader from their own living room to the ends of the earth.

The impression left behind is one about the writer as much as the story. That light-weaving ability will foster loyalty and reader testimonials that gather new readers. And that is what the writer wants above all.

There you have it, one writer’s take on lighting within a story.If you have another suggestion or comment on this element of the craft, feel free to come forth and expound. All comments are welcome.

Until next time, a bientot.