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Describing Light

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by AliceBaine, Sep 27, 2021.

  1. AliceBaine

    AliceBaine Acolyte

    Hey fellow writers. I had a thought pop up while I was editing my story.

    There are many instances, whether the characters are in a cave, wandering at night, etc, when someone casts some light magic or holds up a lantern or whatever. My default description is usually something like. "The lantern illuminated his face" or "His face glowed under the lantern's flame" or "The flames highlighted his worried expression."

    I feel like the options are slimmer than they ought to be to describe something being lit up. I was wondering if anyone had any creative go-to's outside of the typical "highlight" or "illuminate" I find myself using most often.

    Thanks in advance for any suggestions/advice!

    PS. It's a traditional/medieval fantasy, so there's no electricity. It would either be fire, magic, or the sun lighting things.
  2. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    I always try to imagine the rate of illumination, the intensity, and the perspective of the character to the illuminated object/person.

    "The lantern beat back the darkness, casting shadows in the hidden corners of the cavern. She ducked behind a fallen bolder, her hand held up to shield against the yellow light, her eyes so long accustomed to the void of the hidden earth."
    AliceBaine likes this.
  3. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    Finally, my barebones practical knowledge of color science can be of use!

    So light is, well, light! It has 3 important factors: how strong it is, the color of the light, and the stuff its lighting up. The stuff I'm gonna talk about works for all kinds of light (i.e. electromagnetic radiation) so if you're mucking around outside of the (human) visible light spectrum, this still applies.
    • Strength, brightness, its how much energy is coming off the source. Most forms of light we use also gives off heat (i.e. there is light below red that's invisible happening), so a stronger light would have more heat. Stronger light can go farther or shine through materials (like cloth or your fingertip). So does your magic light give off heat? How far does it go into the darkness? If its in your palm and you close your fingers, can you see through them?
    • Color, there's the normal definition (which I'll get to in a moment) and temperature. You've probably seen lightbulbs that are white, that are blueish, that are orange-ish, that's the temperature of the light. It's orangey-er the closer it is to infrared, the blue-r it is closer to ultraviolet. If your characters are used to light from fires, the "white" or "blue" "pure" light of magic is going to feel very weird to them! Things are going to look different since the color of light is different! I have an Ikea LED bulb with a dimmer switch and I can change the temperature of the light as I wish, so it's easy to see the slight changes of the colors of things (there's probably videos of this out there). Does a character choose their light to be a different color for the aesthetic? You can also have colors that are outside of the human visible light spectrum: this could be a good idea if you have a party that can all see, say, ultraviolet and you want to move around in a cave without alerting others that you're there.
    • The stuff being illuminated. This is the craziest part of color science. I can have two Pantone chips that are exactly the same, I can be looking at them in the same light box, but if the person standing next to me is wearing a different color shirt then the chips are going to look slightly different. Your brain also does some funny stuff in regards to color based on how it "autofills" information (did you know your peripheral vision doesn't have color? Your brain auto-colors it for you so you never notice). There's lots of illusions that make you see colors that aren't actually there based on the color of surrounding stuff. But in a normal situation, something is a certain color because the light that bounces off of it is that wavelength (color). Things like vantablack are super black because it absorbs almost all the light, so what you're seeing is a lack of light. Your printer paper looks so white because there's a coating on it to reflect UV and blue light more, which makes it look whiter (logically, that doesn't make any sense, shouldn't it look blue? But brains are weird and also I don't want to go into a lecture about paper coatings dlkjadlkd). The type of material and textures reflect light differently (crystals, metal, wood, flesh, flesh with a sheen of sweat on it....) so that'll make things look different. It can be kinda hard to visualize this, but you're a writer and this is fantasy, so you can make some stuff up to really hammer in the tone of the piece. A scene where light is reflecting off all the crystals in a cave is going to feel different than a scene with light reflecting off the sticky, oozy dark puddles on the cave floor. Pick words that lend to the vibe you want!
    A character sitting at a desk working by lamplight will have a warm, orange glow, it can be comforting, or the flickering light can be distracting or spooky. It can be a reminder of a traumatic experience with fire or the chaos of the world around them or the constantly-changing state of one's being. The light won't go very far, so the room will have dark corners, do those feel safe or dangerous? The darkness can be comforting and your character enjoys being in a very small (illuminated) space, or maybe the darkness feels vast and cold, this small spot of light is a safe harbor in a scary storm.

    A character sitting at a desk working by magic light emanating from a crystal (let's say it acts much like an LED bulb) is going to be bathed in bright, blueish-white light. It's sort of like sunlight, but not quite, it doesn't warm your skin, this light feels oddly cold, clinical, detached. Things don't look quite the same as in other situations, maybe the steel of their blade looks especially blue, their skin suddenly looks deathly pale. This can all connect to your themes of magic being inhuman, of being a tool in in uncaring system, of being something otherworldly and godly depending on how you describe it. Since the light is so bright, there's nowhere in the room that's in the darkness. The shadows are sharp, crisp, there's a light by the door and there's an odd, angular design where shadows overlap. But maybe having everything revealed is disqueting, does your character have something to hide? Do they feel exposed? Or is being fully aware of everything in their environment comforting?
  4. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Archmage

    You could just not mention the light if you feel you're being repetitive. Something like I raised the lantern, revealing his face. He looked worried.
    AliceBaine likes this.
  5. Stevie

    Stevie Minstrel

    One of the tricks I use is to assign the light or the effect of the light, some quality light can't have but that catches the mood of the piece. So for a fight on a dance floor, I had something like, "the strobe razored his face into bands of light and dark".

    I've used light having a physical touch a few times, "the darkness pressed on her face, a palpable presence." I've also given light some agency, when describing a scruffy room, "the sunlight crept through the shades and fell exhausted on the threadbare carpet."

    Having said that, there's nothing much wrong with saying "the lantern cast a warm glow around the room" or "the firelight lit up the room." That in itself is an evocative description, it puts a picture in our heads and we know just what it looks like. Gets the reader to do our work for us! Hope that helps some.
    AliceBaine likes this.
  6. ShadeZ

    ShadeZ Maester

    Well not sure the level of sensory perception but for my race which have very sharp eyesight sunlight looks like a rainbow fluid flitting about the air.
    AliceBaine likes this.
  7. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Maester

    Do you need to describe the characters' faces being illuminated every time? Surely they're not using the light just to show their faces. It would be for seeing where they're going, or maybe looking for something. So, you could just describe it in a utilitarian way: "With the light, they could see the path." Something like that. Or, "He raised the torch to the cave wall. Intricate drawings appeared in its light."
    AliceBaine likes this.
  8. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Maester

    Another option is to focus on the effect the light is having on the the person or thing it contacts. Such as, "The warmth of the sun on her face caused his cheeks to glow.", "The shadows created by the flickering torch danced across the cave wall."
    AliceBaine likes this.
  9. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    “The lantern casts its faint glow through the cavern. Light bounces off the walls and searches through the cave’s cracks and crevices. Quickly, it turns its gaze to [character’s name here] and unveils his worried expression.”

    I guess my advice would be not to worry about using the most logical or straightforward word. Sometimes you got to describe light as if it isn’t light, talking about it “bouncing” and “unveiling” and “gazing” and whatever.
    AliceBaine likes this.
  10. AliceBaine

    AliceBaine Acolyte

    Wow, I completely forgot to get back here to thank all of you for the advice. It was all really helpful!
    ShadeZ likes this.
  11. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    I swung my torch, and the glint of fangs was the last thing I ever saw.

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  12. fantasy_trance

    fantasy_trance Dreamer

    ✧・゚: *✧・゚:*Your options are actually limitless! You can take those words like "illuminated" and "glowed" and replace them with any verb like "revealed", "exposed", "unveiled". If you interpret the light as its own entity [like a person] then you will become aware of a multitude of action words you can use to describe its effect.*:・゚✧*:・゚✧
    AliceBaine and ShadeZ like this.
  13. ShadeZ

    ShadeZ Maester

    Shortest book ever lol.
    AliceBaine likes this.

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