In another life, nearly 20 years ago, I was fortunate to attend a sensational seminar, the famous Robert McKee 3 day “STORY BOOTCAMP”.
In fact, sensational is an understatement. My stand-out memory is McKee, wreathed in cigarette smoke, leaping about and ranting about how crucial it is to employ the power of ALL the human senses in writing, whether in movies or literature.
Fragrance, sound, touch, pain… the tang of salt air, roaring gales, the burning heat of fire, the chill of frost on window panes and so on.
But his most vivid example was from the 1942 movie “Casablanca”.
Basically a group of refugees were trapped there, waiting to escape by plane. It was almost a prison in a way, so the director cast powerful, subliminal “prison bars” lighting in almost every scene to enhance the claustrophobic sensation of imprisonment.
Look closely: Shadows of prison window bars across actors Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman can be seen in the screen shot above.
The McKee magic came rushing back to me this week when I was offered a guest post by author Claudette Young. She has explored this very same subject, the power of lighting in our work.
The article is such a gift, I could hardly wait to publish it.
Over to Claudette…
Claudette Young has written about craft for Wordsmith Studio and other venues, and has been through the ‘author mill’. Based on her experiences she’s offered to share her discoveries about the sensory power of lighting up your writing.
“Anyone can write a story, but not everyone illuminates with their words. And learning to emphasize without red flags, spotlights, or extraneous punctuation is a skill worth the effort.
Tell you what… close your eyes and visualize the room you occupy.
Where is the light coming from? A lamp? A window? A door with glass inserts? Ask yourself how you would begin a story with the scene behind your eyelids.
Effective writing uses lighting elements within the storyline as much or more than any other descriptive. A story arc always has a setting and characters. A setting can also act as one of the primary characters. One of its lesser considered unique physical traits is lighting, and the writer is also the lighting director.
Think about these classics:
Michener’s “Hawaii” or Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” Margaret Mitchell used master strokes in “Gone with the Wind.”
The trick of illuminating writing is to accentuate the setting’s or character’s features. Any character can switch on a lamp to light a room. It’s the writer who doesn’t always use a “written” switch for the lamp who garners great writing credit scores.
I’ll bet you’ve seen some of the best examples around.
Light Informs the Mind
TV and movies require the criticality of lighting. One of the elemental differences between the three CSI series begins in the first instant of viewing. Each of the franchise’s series has specific lighting.
1. CSI Las Vegas: subdued lighting in lab scenes to highlight instruments and individual work stations. The mood—a cave-like space hidden from view or protected from the searing desert sun.
Interior crime scenes: done with a flashlight to add a more sinister element or suspense. Exterior, daytime scenes: muted, almost dusty, light inherent to the desert during early morning or late afternoon. Exterior night scenes: reflect glittering lights of locale.
2. CSI Miami: created much different mood and viewer expectation. Lighting: vibrant and harsh–primary colors in blatant HD. Most episodes filmed with sun-filled exterior scenes.
Interior labs explode with light from expansive windows and slick surfaces that reflect light, and Horatio Cain goes nowhere without his sunglasses (the viewer might wonder what he’s really hiding behind those Foster Grants.)
Filming technique used exaggerates natural light to create visual clarity not found in the other two series. Focus accentuates youth and physical beauty along with modern architecture, glistening in the sunshine.
3. CSI NY: viewer taken into the cluttered, gritty streets of New York City—light was flatter, less defined, dimmer. Skyscrapers kept sunlight at bay. Because of setting, exterior shots appeared depressing.
The labs: unique for both the building’s architecture type and lighting, though the equipment flaunted high-tech with its own special lighting. The setting screams New York City as the stereotype here. The viewer would never have to hear the name to know the place.
Light in Literature
Let’s face it. 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 mastered lighting to help show the story, create the mood, and modulate suspense. After the opening two minutes of a film, lighting had already left its message and set the reader on a predetermined emotional course.
The same power holds true for all writers. Truman Capote introduced creative non-fiction to the mass market with his thriller “In Cold Blood” by working the scenes as any good lighting director would do. It’s a matter of words and their use.
When you experience a scene behind your eyelids, sensations and impressions reveal the story. It automatically shows rather than tells. Stop long enough to think about the last riveting daydream you had.
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 a couple of chapters into the book without using an info dump.
“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 that it didn’t end pleasantly. The “porch light” haloes this character as important in the future and gives the reader a taste of his personality. It served its purpose well.
One of my favorite authors is the high fantasy writer, David Eddings.
Eddings uses large numbers of characters and settings and is a master of intricate story lines. 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 squinty-eyed Nadrak named Zelmit, who was probably almost as untrustworthy as he looked…”
Here the reader learns about three people and more in the space of two sentences.
1. Silk and Yarblek are rich, commercial traders
2. Zelmit works for them and has squinty eyes and looks untrustworthy.
3. The office is in a loft over a huge warehouse
4. The warehouse (presumably theirs) is filled with furs and carpets
5. The lighting conditions surrounding the characters
What is lighting like in a crowded warehouse in high fantasy? One can assume that it’s dark or dim at best. The genre connotes medieval conditions. That fact makes it logical to assume few, if any, windows in the office space. Perhaps Zelmit is “squinty-eyed” due to the lighting, perhaps not.
All of the lighting in this scene is inferred, yet the reader fills in the blanks and quickly moves on with an internal image in mind.
Bringing Things to Light
Of course, inference can do much of the writer’s work without adding word count. In fact, if the writer uses strong, concrete nouns and verbs, little extraneous description is necessary. Here are some examples of illumination without padding.
1. “Gillian’s surfer good looks drew every eye. Sunrays escaped late afternoon clouds to spotlight her while she selected a champagne flute from a passing waiter. Peacock blue brocade suited her well.”
2. “Alaska enjoyed 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 readied the fireplaces. She’d worried with candles. Now, if they could keep the runway’s flame pots burning until the plane landed, everyone would 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 indicating a party, probably formal. If Gillian is wearing brocade, it’s possibly chilly in temperature. Brocade is a heavier fabric in the main. Also, Gillian is physically fit with a deep tan since her looks are equated with a surfer.
The second paragraph is 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,) which means they aren’t using a generator. The flame pots for the runway mean it’s a small private strip.
The feel of the place and the characters comes through to the reader.
The writer needs to be his own lighting director.
The movie he brings to light is contained between book covers and requires the best illumination possible. Regardless of storyline, characters, or settings the writer who can sprinkle sparkles and shimmers throughout will leave an impression and hold the reader’s attention.
On the story’s last page, the reader isn’t thinking of which writing devices were used. Writers can use blatant or subtle clues spun from bright and dark, dappled and ethereal.
The impression left behind is one about the writer as much as the story. That light-weaving ability will foster loyalty, and testimonials that gather more avid readers.
And that is what the writer wants… above all.
Guest article by Claudette Young.
Claudette has written many articles, op-ed, travel, and children’s fiction for Yahoo News, fiction for both online and print magazines, and poetry for online magazines and print anthologies.
The first booklet in her “How-To Slay a Writer’s Dragon” series has been released on Kindle.
Which of these “lighting” ideas resonate with you most? Do you use a range of human senses in your work? Please do leave a comment.
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