Using Light to Create Emotion

When I was learning to write, the biggest lesson that was drilled into my head was the concept of “Show, Don’t Tell”.  It’s the idea of using your words – and as a writer, you have lots of those – to create a scene to show someone and not just having it told to you.  For this, you need to learn about how to really focus your setting in both the physical sense – where is this taking place – as well as the emotional sense – how does this feel – to create a full picture.

Most people, when they think of setting, think of the physical pieces that go into the scene.  You want to know where everything is, and how you can move your characters around within it.  You will go through the mental checklist to verify all the tiny props that will be used have been set.  In some scenes, so much attention is paid to the physical pieces, that the parts of the setting that effect the physical and emotional responses are left as an afterthought, if not omitted.

One of those pieces is proper lighting.

I will admit, my research about light and how it can be used to create a response started in college when I was taking a class through the theatre department on how to light scenes.  It is a lot more than just throwing up a bunch of lights and flipping switches, as anyone who regularly goes to the theatre can tell you. You have to learn levels, colors, and how where you aim it can make a big difference on if the audience will walk away crying or indifferent at the end of a dramatic scene.

It was cemented more when, years later, I watched the movie The Christmas Cottage and learned about the life of Thomas Kinkade and how his mentor taught him to paint the light since it lasts forever.  If anyone could have been a true source on the inspiration light brings, it was Thomas.  If you really want to delve into how to use light, give it a watch.

It is amazing how this one aspect can really affect your entire work is used properly.  For the rest of this article, I’m going to go through a few of the easiest ways to look at adding light to your setting along with examples of scenes that you can accomplish this in.  Mind you, there are probably a few hundred more ways that light can be used, but this is just a sampling to get you thinking and looking at your own work and how to implement it in.


Light is used to illuminate the setting.  Duh, I know.  Basically, is your characters able to see where they are going, or are they stumbling around in the dark?  Where are the shadows?  Is the light being hidden behind thick curtains that someone can pull aside to banish nightmares or vampires?  Think about the sun cycle in the area you’re writing and how is affects the day to day business – if you’re in Alaska in the summer, there is no real “night” and in the winter there is no real “daylight”.  If your character is in the jungle, how thick the trees are will alter how much light filters down, and how fast it will get dark after the sun sets.


The type of lighting can suggest time, age, and wealth.  How is your setting lit? Older buildings, abandoned shacks, forests… most of them do not have their own light source beyond what the sun and moon gives them.  How are your characters getting their light to see?  If they are in a modern day setting, how is their light obtained?  Does the home have little antique lamps in every room, or florescent lights?  Does the butler give you a candle for you to carry to light your room as you enter for the night?  Or is the only source of light in the room the same fire that gives the room heat?


The source of light, or absence of, can be altered to inflict a mood.  You’re character arrives for a dinner date and they enter the dining room – how different is the scene if the room is lit by an overhead light, a set of two perfect candles, or a glowing chandelier above them?  Most romantic scenes on screen will usually involve a candle, of not multiple ones lighting up the room with a soft glow.  A dark night in a bedroom can become scary with the flash of lightning outside the window at the right moment, or even to foreshadow a growing danger.  Fireflies on a field, both a creature and a use of light, can create a magical or innocent feel.  The sudden absence of light – like a power outage – can bring a moment of confusion and fear.


The color of light can add to a setting.  A green sky in Oklahoma will send people running for shelter from a tornado.  The yellow and orange flames from a fire can add urgency or relaxation – all depending on the fire!  Blue filtered light tends to be calming, where red can raise anger – the “seeing red” effect.  Florescent lights give off a more hospital type sterile light that sees everything which is different from lamplight, and LED rights can be blinding for a moment.  Smoke and fog can steal away the light, or alter it.  While it doesn’t work in every situation, having a emotion color wheel and knowing what colors bring about certain feels works to help you in describing the light and what it reveals to bring out an unconscious emotional response from the reader.


Light can also be used as a prop.  I’ve personally used a beam of sunlight as a method for a god to guide someone through a forest to safety.  Fires have been habitually used to guide people who are lost to the light which provides safety.  Someone trapped in the darkness can pull out a box of matches, and they have twelve little moments of light to guide them somewhere before they are trapped in the dark again with burnt fingertips.   Anything that creates light can be used not only as a way to bring it in, but their presence can play with all of the above ways I’ve shown how they can set up a scene or emotion.


What other ways have you thought about using light in your work?  What have you seen in your own reading that works.  Also remember that while you want to bring in the light, make it subtle.  You don’t want to overdo it and make it take over the description that is just one part of the full setting.  Keeping everything in balance will help you create the perfect setting for your reader to get lost in.


Blogged in memory of Thomas Kinkade: January 19, 1958 – April 6, 2012.  Rest in peace and thank you.

Nashville Parthenon

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