Creating Atmosphere 2 : Using Light and Shade

Creating atmosphere : with shade in the picture

contrast in shade

Light and shade help to create atmosphere. It doesn’t have to be deep gloom or blinding sunlight, just a degree of contrast.

To see what I’m getting at, have a look at the 3 pictures in the slider  below, showing roughly the same view of a snowy landscape, but in different kinds of light. I reckon the changes of light and shade move the viewer from misery (or at least gloom), through hope, to something much more positive.

The question is: can we do the same thing, subtly, with mere words?

“A picture’s worth a thousand words”

cover Proust Remembrance of Things PastYes, but we writers have only words to paint our pictures with. And if we use a thousand words to do our painting, our exasperated readers may have closed the book long before the end of our “masterpiece”.

If you don’t believe me (and if you have a spare wet towel for your head) try reading the famous 599-word sentence from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. (The original French is just as wordy so we can’t blame the translator.)

Once you’ve got to the end — if you do! — ask yourself whether you actually have a rounded picture in your mind’s eye. Chances are, you’ll have a couple of glimpses, via a phrase or two, and nothing more.

You don’t always need a page of description to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
Just a single hint will do, to beckon the reader further into your story.

snow covered bridge beckons across to sunshineYou’re offering the reader a path — possibly untrodden — and inviting her to take it with you. Can you look at this bridge, with the virgin snow leading to sunlight, and resist the temptation to see what’s over on the other side?

It’s what we call The Beckoning in our Libertà editing workshops.
And the writer’s job is to make the temptation irresistible. With mere words.

No pressure, then.

Light and Shade and Contrast via word choice

Sometimes atmosphere is between the lines, as I suggested in the first atmosphere blog a couple of weeks ago. Sometimes, though, it’s in the precision of the word choice, because of the cultural flavours and colours that go with word A rather than word B.mysterious shady door in forest
(We mentioned in our RNA Conference session last year that changing the single word “woods” to “forest” can bring in a whole host of unvoiced allusions derived from dark European fairy tales. Hansel & Gretel? Ravening wolves? A house full of dwarves?)

I’m not going to presume to tell writers what words to choose to bring light and shade to their description or to beckon readers in. I’ll just give you a few examples, from the openings of books that I’ve found impossible to resist (and mostly bestsellers, too).
Since I’m a reader who generally prefers action to description, these authors had to beckon me across a pretty high hurdle. And they succeeded.

Painting shade : five examples

cover Dogs of War by ForsythThere were no stars that night on the bush airstrip, nor any moon; just the West African darkness wrapping round the scattered groups like warm, wet velvet. The cloud cover was lying hardly off the tops of the iroko trees and the waiting men prayed it would stay a while longer to shield them from the bombers.
The Dogs of War, by Frederick Forsyth (1973)

cover No Time for Romance by AndrewsAs always, it was the sudden silence that woke me, but that mornng in March 1945, for the last time. The silence meant the flying bomb overhead had switched off its engine and within seconds would explode on the ground. By my counting, eight seconds; others varied this from five to fifteen.
No Time for Romance, by Lucilla Andrews (1977, reissued 2007) Non-fiction

cover Pillars of the Earth by FollettThe small boys came early to the hanging.
    It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the  hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface.
The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett (1989)

cover Cuckoo's Calling by GalbraithThe buzz in the street was like the humming of flies. Photographers stood massed behind barriers patrolled by police, their long-snouted cameras poised, their breath rising like steam. 
The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J K Rowling), (2013)

cover Wool by HoweyThe children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads.
Wool, by Hugh Howey (2013)

Not always pure visual description here. The other senses beckon too, like sound versus silence in Lucilla’s memoir or the children squealing in Howey’s silo. Some single words or phrases seem to ooze menace and darkness. Just my opinion. Others may disagree.

Painting light : five examples

cover Lieutenant Hornblower by ForesterLieutenant William Bush came on board HMS Renown as she lay at anchor in the Hamoaze and reported himself to the officer of the watch, who was a tall and rather gangling individual with hollow cheeks and a melancholy cast of countenance, whose uniform looked as if it had been put on in the dark and not readjusted since.
Lieutenant Hornblower, by C S Forester (1952)

cover Ride a White Dolphin by MayburyThe shutters creaked as I opened them onto the fluid gold of the early Venetian morning. And as the quiet of the room met the stillness of the lagoon, I thought a voice behind me called my name.
Ride a White Dolphin by Anne Maybury (1971)

cover Hollow Hills by StewartThere was a lark singing somewhere high above. Light fell dazzling against my closed eyelids, and with it the song, like a distant dance of water.
The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart (1973)

cover Far Pavilions by KayeAshton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn was born in a camp near the crest of a  pass in the Himalayas, and subsequently christened in a patent canvas bucket.
    His first cry competed manfully with the snarling call of a leopard on the hillside below, and his first breath had been a lungful of the cold air that blew down from the far rampart of the mountains, bringing with it a clean scent of snow and pine-needles to thin the reek of hot lamp-oil, the smell of blood and sweat, and the pungent odour of pack-ponies.
The Far Pavilions, by M M Kaye (1978)

cover Play by ScottSomething was wrong. I knew it the moment I walked in the door. With one hand I flicked on the light, dumping my purse onto the couch with the other. After the dimly lit hallway, the sudden glare was dazzling. Little lights flashed before my eyes. When they cleared all I saw were spaces . . . spaces where, just this morning, things had been.
    Like the couch.
Play, by Kylie Scott (2014)

Sometimes, going beyond the senses, we can paint light or hope using humour as Forester and Kylie Scott do. Why not, if it works?

Or perhaps you have other ways? Do please share.

Joanna Maitland, author


7 thoughts on “Creating Atmosphere 2 : Using Light and Shade

  1. lesley2cats

    Apart from the fact that I love your posts, you couldn’t give a workshop on how to blog, could you? I’m in awe.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Cor! Didn’t expect that, Lesley. We do try to be entertaining and useful, but we don’t claim to be experts at all. We’ve made up our own rules based on what we like: lots of pictures, lots of white space, nothing too heavy, make it funny if we can. That’s about it.

      OTOH, Libertà can always do with income to support the website, so if there was demand for a blog workshop, I’m sure we’d oblige 😉

      1. Joanna Post author

        PS Our rules don’t, of course, apply to Dame Isadora. She is much too august a personage to adopt anyone else’s rules. Sophie and I humbly accept whatever she provides…

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    So agree with this. You don’t need to say much to paint the picture. The right words can convey images, sounds, sensations with very little said. Love this post.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Liz. Do so agree. I love the little boys sidling out to the hanging. Ditto the patent canvas bucket.and the dance of water. Makes me very envious when I find such mastery of language in books I read.

    1. Joanna Post author

      So true, Sandra. We can all try harder. Even though we may be unlikely to reach the heights of a Mary Stewart… ????

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