Of all the many story aspects authors have to keep track of, why in heaven’s name should lighting be up there at the top of our list? That’s something movie directors have to worry about, not writers. Right?
Lighting can be a tremendous factor in bringing scenes to life. Getting the lighting right can help you ace your scene the first time. And we won’t even mention that lighting can help you with your story’s tone, symbolism, and even characterization.
Or maybe we will!
I first discovered the power of lighting in written fiction when I was working on my historical novel Behold the Dawn. Set during the Third Crusade, in the hot, dusty, sunny Holy Land, I found myself struggling to get my often dark themes to mesh well with all that bright sunshine. At first, I wasn’t certain what was going on. But then, the solution hit me upside the head. Change the lighting!
In re-reading Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece of lighting (which I analyze in-depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest AnnotatedClassic), the whole concept became even clearer.
Use Lighting to Create Tone
Above all, lighting influences tone. My problem with Behold the Dawn was that the bright, glorious sunshine was too cheerful for the story’s otherwise dark and dangerous tone. But throw in a few clouds and night scenes—and, voila!—the story’s tone instantly darkened.
The classic Gothic novels are known for their use of shadowy settings to enhance suspense, and Jane Eyre is a masterful example. When Jane first comes to work at the mysterious Thornfield Manor, she views the mostly empty mansion as a sanctuary from her hard-knock life. But the lighting tells a different story. The rooms aren’t well lit. Shadows abound. Even the furniture is dark.
Brontë paints a picture that helps readers visualize the scene’s lightning just as clearly as if they were watching a movie. And just as in a movie, the dark edges prompt readers to understand—if only subconsciously—that something horrible is afoot at Thornfield.
Use Lighting to Enhance Symbolism
Lighting also offers one of our most organic opportunities for symbolism. What could be more symbolic than light and dark? (Just ask Darth Vader.) Readers instantly understand that darkness hints at secrets, sins, and suspense, while light stands for hope, joy, and second chances. It’s no mistake that “noir” (the French word for black) is a genre of crime and violence.
Brontë uses her lightning to wonderful symbolic effect in an early scene, in which Jane is exploring Thornfield for the first time. She writes that, “…the attic seemed black as a vault compared with that arch of blue air to which I had been looking up, and to that sunlit scene of grove, pasture, and green hill, of which the hall was the centre, and over which I had been gazing with delight.”
The contrast between the sunlit beauty of the surrounding country and the blackness of the (secretly corrupted) house is a beautifully subtle example of powerful symbolism—which will be played out time and again throughout the story.
Using Lighting to Refine Characterization
Lighting provides just as many cues about characters as it does about the settings in which they live. Some characters will bring the darkness on stage right along with them. In The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch practically glows, while the Wicked Witch of the West is shrouded in smoke as black as her costume (and, one presumes, her heart).
Brontë offers an especially nice bit of characterization when she introduces Edward Rochester—Jane’s mysterious employer and eventually epic love. Previous to Rochester’s arrival at Thornfield, the house has been mostly closed up and, as a result, shrouded in that symbolic darkness. But when Rochester arrives, Jane discovers that the rooms in which he lives have come to life with light and warmth—dramatically symbolizing how he will similarly transform her own life.
If your scene's not working, author @KMWeiland suggests you check your lighting - via @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)
Lighting can be a tremendous factor in bringing scenes to life - via @KMWeiland on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)
K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.