Write great protagonists!
I'll be at LDSPMA
Tips organized by topic
Read about me
Editing Services
Read Testimonials
Learn the "bones" of story

Monday, March 2, 2020

Common Mistakes When Working with Light Sources

This is going to seem like another weirdly specific post (remember my one on food scenes?), but these are common problems I see in manuscripts. Heck, I even catch myself doing them. And they are all related to light--as in, literal light. Light bulbs, the sun, moon, stars, flashlights, whatever.

Like food, light sources will naturally be present in most pieces of fiction, whether it's the sun or the screen of a cell phone. Light enables us to see, and sometimes just the right shadows can set a tone for a scene. But there are a few, subtle mistakes with them that are easy to make when writing.

#1 Can they actually see that?

The most common problem I see with light relates to the lack of it. Nothing is wrong with having scenes in the dark, but sometimes a character will be in a dark setting, and yet see things they shouldn't be able to.

The human eye has photoreceptors called rods and cones. Rods are active at lower light levels and cones are active at higher light levels. Rods are not responsive to color. When you are in the dark, you may notice that your vision tends to be more black and white. If there is enough light, you may still get an idea of what color something is, but, overall . . . well . . . things just aren't colorful in the dark.

So if you have a character in the dark, they probably aren't going to be able to clearly see color, especially vibrant color. Meaning that, if it's very dark and the prose is describing lots of color . . . I'm getting a tad skeptical. Typically, we want the story experience to feel like a real experience.

Other than color, sometimes characters seem to be able to see farther or in more detail than they should be able to in a scene that has been established to be very dark. Sure, if the light source is up high, say a full moon at night, they can probably see movement pretty far. But if the light source is a screen in front of their face, they probably aren't going to be able to see beyond the campground to describe a bear in striking detail.

This sounds nitpicky, and most of the time, you probably don't need to worry about this. But if there is a big gap between how dark the setting is and how well the character seems to see things . . . it feels like an error.

With that said, I don't have a problem with writers "cheating" here and there if it's for great effect. Sometimes it's worth the cheat.

#2 Wait . . . is that consistent?

Like with blocking, you can sometimes run into inconsistencies with light sources and brightness. Sometimes this can be extreme, like maybe in the beginning of the scene, there was a line about the bright afternoon sun, and at the end of the scene, there's a line about it being dusk, but the scene couldn't have lasted longer than an hour tops. Other times it can be more subtle, like maybe the shadows don't match the direction of the light. Or maybe a shadow appears suddenly for no reason. Maybe the light sources change--at first it was a flashlight, but then it's a lighter. Or maybe the brightness of the room seems to change in ways that doesn't work with the established rules of the setting.

You don't need to be specific in every scene--that can get to be too much real fast! But you should be consistent with what is specific.

#3 What is the lighting?

This one is less common than the other two. If you focus on lighting too much, it can draw too much attention and get annoying. And in some scenes, the brightness and sources can be implied through context (time of day, activity happening, setting). But sometimes the lighting is noticeably vague or missing. As a reader, I'm not always sure how to imagine the scene. Are these characters breaking into a house in broad daylight or at night? Usually it's portrayed as being at night, but statistically, more break-ins happen during the day. Furthermore, how light or dark it is will play into how they approach the break-in, so it's kind of important.

Remember what I said with food scenes. The more important it is to the scene, the more it should be mentioned.

Other than that, there isn't much more to say on this topic. Again, minor things that may seem nitpicky, but they can be helpful to be aware of, as I do run into them from time to time.


Just a quick note to say that I am still looking to fill up some editing slots for spring. If you are interested in my editing services, check out Fawkes Editing.


  1. Thanks for this! I hadn't thought about the color issue at night, but that could be an issue in a critical scene for me.


I love comments :)