Let There Be Light

Let There Be Light
Terry Odell

Light and Color

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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 bit I’d written (yes, it’s from one of my romantic suspense books).

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?” Maybe. More on that in a minute.

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.

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 for them to send images to the brain. If you’ve ever taken a cave tour, you’ll know there’s no adapting to total darkness.

In the case of the paragraph I’d written, the character had seen the man’s clothes earlier that day, so she’d probably remember the colors, especially since the tee was black. And you’ll note, I didn’t say “red and green plaid shirt.”

I won’t delve too deeply into biology, but our retinas are lined with rods and cones. Rods function in dim light, but can’t detect color; cones need more light, but they can “see” color. (All the “seeing” is done in the brain, not the eyes.)

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, check to see how much you can actually ‘see’. 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? What colors do you see first? When it gets dark, what colors drop off first. Divers are probably aware of the way certain colors are no longer detectable as they descend.

Here’s a video showing what happens.

And another quick aside about seeing color. Blue is focused on the front of the retina, red farther back. This makes it very hard for the brain to create an image where both colors are in focus. It’s hard on the eyes. For that reason, it’s probably not wise to have a book cover with red text on a blue background, or vice-versa. You can look up chromostereopsis if you like scientific explanations. For me, I’m fine with “don’t do that because it’s hard to read.”

How do you deal with light and color in your books? Any examples of when it’s done well? How about not well?


Heather's ChaseI’m pleased to announce that my upcoming Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is now available for preorder at most e-book channels.

(If you’d like to see some of the pictures I took on my trip, many of which appear in the book, click on the book title above and scroll down to “Special Features.”)



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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36 thoughts on “Let There Be Light

  1. What an interesting video, Terry. Just realized one of my previous covers was red lettering on a blue background.

    Light and the perception of color changes when one is near the ocean vs. inland.

    Fire is another factor that affects perception of color. If you’ve ever been near a massive wildfire, the sky and sun cast an orange glow over everything because of the smoke. Eerie.

    • Debbie – I see a lot of covers with that red/blue color scheme. Makes me wonder if the art departments are aware they’re making covers hard to read. I remember first seeing this phenomenon when I was a kid and there were alternating red and blue stripes. I think it was a “game” where the magazine said they were magic dancing colors.

      Good point about fires changing the way things look. I didn’t touch upon what having a colorblind character could do to create story issues. That could be interesting.

  2. Great post, Terry! (And congrats on your new book…)

    The video was fascinating. I can safely say I knew absolutely nothing about visual color change under water…since I’ve never been deeper than about ten feet, and that in a swimming pool.

    I just received a MS back from two betas (still waiting for the third), and they both mentioned color details. Now this post. The stars are aligned… 🙂

    • Synchronicity!
      My parents and brother were into SCUBA for a while. I preferred staying on TOP of the water. My brother and I had totally different impressions of Sea Hunt. Mine: “You’re risking a terrible death every time you dive.”
      But that’s when I learned about the way we lose seeing color under water. Glad you liked the video.

    • Good point (and more nerdspeak terminology). That’s why a lot of communities stopped using red for emergency vehicles. Less visible at night. Neon yellow-green seems to be the most visible. But they ran into trouble when people didn’t associate that color with “Get Out Of The Way,” and many went back to red.

  3. I’ve said this before, and perhaps countless times. To me, it bears repeating.

    My fiction writing professor at the University of Oklahoma was the late Foster-Harris, once a prolific writer of paperback westerns.

    He taught us his theory that writing is a highly-stylized form of drawing–that the same principles that apply to drawing apply to writing: form, shading, movement (what was the Mona Lisa doing just before and just after da Vinci caught her perfect smile?), tone, balance, contrast, emphasis, pattern, rhythm, and unity/variety, and, of course, LIGHT. Further, he said that the eye picks up writing the same way it picks up the visual arts. Rods are responsible for vision at low light levels (scotopic vision). They do not mediate color vision, and have a low spatial acuity. Cones are active at higher light levels (photopic vision), are capable of color vision and are responsible for high spatial acuity.

    All of that is the four-bit way of saying that rods pick up the sides of the visual field, and the cones are the light receptors in the middle of the eye.

    Quickly said, the rods see the subtleties–the gunfighter draws his six shooter, and we see that vividly by cone vision, in color and in movement. The cone picks up the sparkle of the glint of the guy’s ring, the indirect vision movement of the creases in his shirt and pants. (The sparkle of the explosion of the round is seen differently than the sparkle of the ring.)

    So . . . I get in trouble with everyone because I don’t believe in the current practice short curt, dialogue or monologue, spat off the end of the tongue:
    “D’jou see that? Blew his hand clean off.”
    “Heluva shot.”
    “Won’t be gunfightin’ anytime soon.”

    Light, color, and movement demand I use my rod and cone acuities to see the subtleties of the entire scene, and add to that the further acuity of sound. (The scene does not simply contain spoken words.)

    Mowbry pulled at his rusty old army pistol, and fired–twice, the muzzle flash visible in the noonday sun.

    Scopes ducked and jumped back, kicking up iron-rich red dust, screaming. He grabbed his hand, what was left of his hand.

    “Gawd!” O’mealy shouted, raising his fists and curling them. He spun away and hit the dirt, not certain whether or noy Mowbry was finished shooting. He looked up, spitting red stuff off the end of his tongue. “D’jou see that?” He gagged. Twice.

    Now I understand this is not perfect as to character voice, but I wanted to illustrate what I mean about using light and movement.

    I read your post and watched the video. It was enlightening. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Jim. You strode deeper into nerdspeak than I dared while writing my post, and I appreciate all the additional details.
      (An aside–despite my striving for accuracy when I write, or expect it when I read, I get irritated when movies/television shows ARE accurate and play out scenes that happen at night and/or in darkened spaces and they’re too dark to see. 🙂 )

  4. Terry, Congratulations and best wishes on your new release and thanks for this article. I find the subject of light very interesting on many levels. In both of my completed novels, light plays a role, but in a very different way:

    In the first book, the protagonist is having trouble figuring out the first clue. But during a Shabbat dinner, the host reads from the creation account in Genesis, “And God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” The protag immediately sees a connection to the clue. (A “lightbulb” moment, lighting the fire under the character — so many analogies!)

    In the second book, one of the characters looks up at the night sky but can’t find the North Star. Her father tells her it’s because there are too many street lights in the area and adds how interesting it is that “light created by man can sometimes obscure light created by God.” It’s a reference to her forcing a decision based on faulty reasoning.

    I loved the video. Maybe I should put a scuba diving scene in the next book! 😊

    • Thanks, Kay. As humans, we rely primarily on our sense of sight, which means light is important to us–as evidenced by your examples.

      One thing I noticed when we moved from Orlando to rural Divide, Colorado, was how little light pollution we get, and being able to marvel at the Milky Way and so many more stars.
      I also recall a desert field trip back in my biology student days at UCLA where the folks who’d studied astronomy couldn’t find the familiar constellations because there were so many other stars visible.

  5. Interesting video, Terry. Thanks for sharing this as well as the red/blue effect on book covers. Just a note on red for emergency vehicles. The City of Edmonton had an interesting experiment when they changed the color scheme on emergency vehicles (police/fire/ambulance) to a yellowish green. They found it had an adverse psychological reaction on some people where it made them agitated to the point of being violent. They scrapped the experiment and went back to standard colors.

    • Thanks for the insight into emergency vehicles. I know there are studies done about what color to paint holding cell walls, which are used for shorter periods of time, versus interrogation rooms or jail/prison cells. I can’t remember if it was pink–but whatever color it was had calming effects at first, but then after a period of time, caused agitation.
      Aren’t we complex creatures!

    • My first department’s vehicles were that color. We called it “slime green.”

      My second department–the one I was with for 12 years–ran yellow vehicles. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever ridden on a red firetruck.

  6. Very cool. Unrelated question, though: What’s your secret to being so prolific?

    • Prolific as in my writing, Philip? 😉 Sit down at the keyboard every day, reminding myself that if I’m not writing, the Hubster expects me to do things like cook and clean.

      Of course, it helps that we’re both retired empty-nesters.

    • Thanks for that link, Harald. Ah, some of those comments brought me back to my photography days with the requisite 18% gray scale card for metering. And the “if you don’t have a card, the grass will make a decent substitute.”

        • Not going to get into skin tones here, Harald! 😉
          But yes, those were the days.
          I don’t think I could take anything remotely resembling a decent picture with the SLR I learned on. And film. Black and White. Developed in our home darkroom.

  7. I use light (or the lack thereof) a lot in my current novel, partly because of the vampires. I pay attention to the difference between pitch blackness, seeing someone as a vague outline, being able to see features, etc. are all spelled out clearly, especially in the fight that extents from moonless starlight into dawn. It not only adds verisimilitude, it adds a ticking clock to the sequence.

    It’s also important for characterization. I have to go back and rethink the whole scene if a character is acting on sensory information (or any information) that’s not actually available at the time. If Character A notices Character B’s eye color in darkness, both characters have probably demonstrated other mysterious superpowers they’re not supposed to have. I have to rewind to before that happened and reimagine the whole sequence.

    • Ah, vampires. I haven’t done much investigating when it comes to whether their senses are any different from “regular” people, but yes, you have to stick to their reality.
      One of my crit partners often comments on what characters can or cannot see when we stray outside what should or shouldn’t be visible in the scenes we set. We’re grateful for his attention to detail.

  8. Funny story: In a novel I read, the main character was a medium. In paranormal/religious lore, people talk about The Light, the energy source that dead people enter. The author’s editor must have told her she needed to capitalize the term so she used that most dangerous of all editing tools, the universal find and replace feature. The heroine walked into a lot of rooms and cut on “The Light.” It was the funniest serious novel I’ve read in a long time.

    Sorry, this seems to be my week for bizarre anecdotes.

    When I start a scene or a change of scene, I close my eyes, put myself in the viewpoint’s head and figure out what she is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. I then throw in the five “W’s.” A police officer entering a room where the killer may be hiding won’t really notice that it’s filled with Louis XV furniture or the curtains’ charming shade of Delft blue, the interior designer looking for her client will. I doubt most cops even know what Delft blue looks like so those curtains if they are important are blue. Light and shadow are there to emphasize the situation and what is in the scene so it’s lit accordingly.

    • Ah, the dreaded find/replace all. The usual reminders to check the ‘match case’ and ‘find whole words only’ boxes wouldn’t have worked here. Thanks for sharing.
      One of my peeves is characters who spout off what the author knows, not what they’d recognize, and not just in color. I’m reminded of the “example” where husband and wife (because he lost a bet, I’m sure) are watching the red carpet happenings before an award show. She points out the actress’s gown, naming the designer. He says, “Nice tits.”

  9. Great post, Terry.

    Most of my action scenes happen at night, with the POV characters using night vision goggles. I have to be very careful with colors and details. Newer technology is better than the old, but you don’t see a lot of color.

    • Thanks, John.
      It’s been a long time since I tried NVGs, but everything was either black or green, as I recall. I suppose I should see what the current technology is like before I let any of my characters use them again.

      • Watch a few ghost hunting shows. Most are filmed with the same technology. It’s scary the amount of detail that can be seen with just a little light in the room. (No technology works in absolute darkness.)

  10. It’s an interesting subject, Terry. Thanks! I tend to ignore it because…I’m colorblind.

    • Thanks, Joe. It would be interesting to know how a colorblind author deals with characters who can see color.

  11. I am enjoying the exchange very much. Thanks to everyone for sharing. I must also admit ignorance on a sentence in the excerpt Terry wrote. Specifically:

    “Then walked her fingers to the second, sliding the disc through the slit in the fabric.”

    What disc? At 66 I confuse easily.

    • Sorry, Keith. From the previous sentence, “She unbuttoned the top button of his shirt,” I thought it was clear they were buttons. Obviously, not clear enough.

      • Ahhhhh…..My day job is as a Business Analyst in Property Casualty insurance (calm down; I know it is a glamour job) so have dealt with CDs for some years. Just too literal, I suppose. Thank you for the clarification.

  12. Sorry I’m late! ISAIAS knocked out our power and internet. Ugh. So frustrating! It’s all good now, though. 🙂

    What a fascinating video, Terry. That’d be really helpful for someone writing an underwater scene.

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