Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Your Scene’s Not Working? Maybe the Lighting Is Wrong

A Guest Post from author K.M Weiland @KMWeiland

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?

Actually, no.

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.

Don’t make the mistake of believing lighting is a throwaway decision. The lighting in any given scene will affect every aspect of your story—including whether or not it works to its full potential. Consider carefully what tone you’re wanting to strike and how you can deepen your story’s symbolism and characterization. Then it’s time to yell, “Lights! Camera! Action!”

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.


  1. I find this very interesting and having a lot of merit. I'm going to try it!

    1. Ane, I know what you mean! It's something I never really thought about before now, but it makes so much sense! Blessings, E

    2. It is sort of counter-intuitive for novelists. We never have to think about the physical problems of a lighting a set. But it's amazing how lighting - even if it's only in our own heads and never gets described on the page - can influence a scene for good or ill.

  2. I never thought of that. Huh. You may have just given me the solution to a troubling scene... Thank you!

  3. Thanks so much for having me today, Edie!

  4. Funny how these little tweaks can be the solution to big scene problems, isn't it?

  5. Reading your solution to the lighting in the holyland, tempering the cheerfulness of the sunshine by inserting clouds and night scenes... I wondered if the same could be done by intensifying the light, instead of diminishing it? You know, make it harsh, unrelenting, unforgiving, shade scarce and/or the darkened rooms stark dramatic extreme in contrast to, heat being the only constant.

    1. Definitely. The scene that immediately pops to mind is someone stranded in the desert, dying of thirst. The light becomes an enemy.

  6. Thanks for another technique to communicate the mood of a story. I've tweeted. :)

  7. I've used lighting frequently, but not in every scene. Near the end of my current WIP, the MC catches sight of her husband's face, "one side warmed by the sepia glow of the lamps on the foyer table, the other a shadowed mask"...and she realizes she will never see behind his mask, just as he will never see behind hers. I suspect, as usual, that I've probably over-explained by adding the words to the effect that she'll never see behind his mask, etc.. Time to edit, I think, but at least I used lighting the way I wanted to.

    Sometimes I use the weather and create what I like to think are invisible metaphors, e.g., a scene where a petty criminal is getting deeper and deeper into sh*t and further away from his family values, and the weather in the scene gets progressively worse, too, e.g., drops on the windshield of the car at first, and then by the end, the guy can't see out because it's raining so heavily. I think my execution of that scene is such that the reader doesn't really recognize what I'm doing with the weather there (unless they're analyzing the writing), but I've also done it rather clumsily and obviously in other cases. I think the challenge is to make these things virtually invisible to the reader. The reader is being seduced, but doesn't realize it (unless they're K.M., and analyzing!)

    K.M., do you think we can get too locked into a particular technique and end up over-using it? I think so, and for that reason, I try to use a variety of techniques...they eventually might come to me so naturally that I pick the right technique for the job at hand almost without having to think about it.

  8. Wow, very interesting post. I also have rarely thought about lighting consciously in my stories. But now that I am aware that I can manipulate the lighting in my scenes, I can't wait to try it! Thanks for the excellent advice!