Since I’ve been traveling, I’m revisiting a post from 2010 about making sure we’re aware of the realities of light.
Light is important when we’re writing—and I’m not talking about having enough light to work by. I’m talking about how much we can describe in our scenes. One of my critique partners questioned a scene I’d written:
She stepped inside and closed the door behind them. Placing her forefinger over her lips, she shook her head before he could speak. She unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. Then walked her fingers to the second, sliding the disc through the slit in the fabric. Then to the third, then the next, until she’d laid the plaid flannel open, revealing the tight-fitting black tee she’d seen at the pond this morning when he’d given her the shirt off his back.
His comment: It’s night. Do you need to show one of them turning on a light?
I don’t know … more about that later.
In a book I read some years back, the author had made a point of a total power failure on a moonless night. There was no source of light, and the pitch-blackness of the scene was a way for the hero and heroine to have to get “closer” since they couldn’t see. As I recall, there was broken glass on the floor, and the heroine was barefoot. Because they couldn’t see, the hero had to carry her to avoid stepping on more glass.
It didn’t take long for them to end up in bed, but somehow, he was able to see the color of her eyes as they made love. I don’t know whether the author had forgotten she’d set up the scene to have no light, or if she didn’t do her own verifying of what you can and can’t see in total darkness. Yes, our eyes will adapt to dim light, but there has to be some source of light. If you’ve ever taken a cave tour, you’ll know there’s no adapting to that kind of darkness.
We want to describe our scenes, we want our readers to ‘see’ everything, but we have to remember to keep it real. This might mean doing some personal testing—when you wake up before it’s fully light, or when you turn off the light to go to sleep, check to see how much you can actually ‘see’. Wait for your eyes to adapt, and check again. The ability to see color drops off quickly. So even if you see your hands, or the chair across the room, or the picture on the wall, how much light do you need before you can leave the realm of black and white?
In the paragraph I used as an example, I didn’t think I needed to stop to turn on a light. In most settings, there’s always some light. We noticed when we moved up here, where there are no street lights, that there’s very little night light pollution, which gives us amazing stars, but in this time of electronics, almost everything that plugs in has some sort of light on.
The only color mentioned in my example paragraph was the black t-shirt, which would look black at night even if it was red, or blue, or green. It’s also likely the hero’s shirt wasn’t buttoned totally to his neck, so she might also have seen it peeking out. I did mention his plaid shirt, but the heroine had seen that before they went upstairs. However, too much dwelling on that kind of explanation would have totally slowed the pace. I’m thinking I don’t need more light in that scene. What about you?
Causes Terry Odell Supports
Pro Literacy Worldwide, The Nature Conservancy, The Adult Literacy League, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society