When I took art classes a few years ago — a project to be resumed when money and time meet again — my teacher used to joke that she could tell we were beginners because we were afraid of the dark. (Yes, this is when I said in a cartoon voice “Come to the dark side, we have cookies,” causing the whole class to burst out laughing. The teacher, btw, failed to understand it.)

At any rate she was right.  You can tell the beginning writers artists, even the accomplished ones, because they’re really afraid of the truly dark tints.  Even acknowledged dark denizens like myself tend to produce washed-out images for fear of the dark.

As suggested above, yes, that applies to writers as well as to visual artists.

In my first book I wrote an entire rape in two sentences.  One, antagonist enters the room. Two, victim is crying.

My husband, failed to get what happened. I’m fairly sure everyone would who wasn’t in my head at the time.

Of course there is the opposite. The people who have discovered the dark, either because they’re a little more experienced, or because they are naturally twisted that way (but then I…) or even because they really like it.

Which brings us to: recently I’ve been conquering mount Daz 3D as much to plant my flag at the top, as to have covers when I need them, because visual artists are crazier than writers, and you can’t get them to perform on demand (what? Not only do I have a ton of artist friends, I’m a part-time artist — part of the thing being Daz will theoretically less time once I master it — but also, I think in another world (if there really is a world for everything that could happen, probably in half the worlds in which I exist, themselves a minority) I’m an artist rather than a writer. But truth is truth. They’re more temperamental than we are and few can be as “commercial.” That is a post for another day.)  I’m not going to say I am amazing. I’m adequate. At some point, I stopped creating naked, bald people, and sometimes I even get them in natural positions.  I kind of sort of have managed backgrounds. Now my big challenge is lighting, partly because I don’t UNDERSTAND the terms used to describe lighting (as by Draven on my blog the other day, or in tutorials) partly because one of the things I’ve never done is photography, not seriously, at least. So a lot of it is the way I do everything, including learning writing: blind and stupid and hitting my head against the wall till it falls down.

Anyway, about half the time what I manage to produce is a perfectly dark print, which is even worse than a washed out one (which I can sometimes fix in post.)  Or a print so dark that you only see indistinct forms in it, but not the person.

I find in writing this is a mistake even pros fall into.

I’m currently reading an excellent SF book which if I didn’t know the author I’d have given up on the first chapter, because it’s unremitting darkness with no hope.

I get it. You need the dark, so that your light will stand out.  Without it, without the clear, vile situation in the background, your figures will look less heroic and more like cartoons.

But you have to be careful with the dark, particularly right up front. If people can’t see the light through the uniform dark, you’re going to lose readers who don’t want to be browbeaten with it from up front.

Look, what I’m saying here is that if your book is all happy happy go lucky, you’re probably going to get readers, but you’ll make no impact or very little. Because it’s like a picture with washed out tints. People will never get the danger/horror/whatever your character is fighting against is real.  Even if the evil is (in romance, it often is) the prospect of an unwanted marriage, you need an example in there to make them feel how bad it can be. It gives the book weight and shape and makes people aware of your character’s full measure.

On the other hand, if you let the dark be very strong and overwhelm everything, then you will just bleed out readers.

As with nearly everything else (including painting, where you usually FIRST learn to place shadows by rote before you learn to see them properly and to see the light within them (I’m still stuck there in art)) there are tricks to get you through this, before your subconscious takes over and sees where to place shadows.

One of them is used in the opening of Monster Hunter International.  One of the things that grips you about MHI is the sheer detail and unremitting violence of that first chapter. It’s dark as hell (I mean the werewolf has a lunch bag with some lady’s fingers) and he pretty much paints the room red. If it were all of it with no ray of light, I’d never have read it, much less get hooked in.

The trick is to give the outcome up front (from memory):  “On an otherwise normal Tuesday evening, I had the chance to live the American dream. I got to throw my incompetent Jackass of a boss out of a fourteenth floor window.”

The funny thing is if you’re like me, because you chuckled at that, you completely forgot it to an extent. Even though the ray of light is there, and your subconscious knows Owen will be all right you still read the fight blow by blow in fear he’ll lose.

The other two tricks I know because I used them.  One of them is dangerous.

Humans are almost infinitely adaptive.  In fact, I read about people during the blitz in London standing in the middle of a bombed out house, obsessed because they have a run in their stocking.  That’s what I used in DST. Athena is…. maladaptively self-focused. So she doesn’t even realize she’s living in hell.  Also, of course, she fights back. The trick is to put her in a position where she’s running and fighting.  Otherwise, if I described in detail how she was raised, instead of sinking it into the mental hospitals and reformatories sentence talking about how she fought back, it would be really depressing.

You only fully realized how effed up she is when she’s coming out of it.

The danger is not showing the dark enough. Some readers will NOT get it.

The other is to show the full dark but with the character already leaving. Or having already left.

I have a character who has gotten VERY loud (sigh) who literally split for sufficient reason in his childhood, and who revisits the trauma in his dreams.  I can start with his dream, because it doesn’t make any sense.  You don’t get the full horror punch until the last sentence, and he wakes up (literally) screaming just before a danger warning on his com. So, yeah, btw, “it was a dream” also gives separation, though the dream was obviously a memory.

Even if I had the full chapter written I wouldn’t put it here, but what I mean by “it doesn’t make any sense” is it opens with the sentence: He wanted to be metal. Metal goes through flesh and emerges unscathed. Like the sword that took out his Nannie’s neck just above her soft comforting bosom. While she fell, dead, and her head went rolling, her eyes staring in horror at him, the sword emerged, dripping but unscathed.

No one WANTS to be metal. So it doesn’t make any sense and gives you a separation.  (And no, he’s not the murderer.)

You need the dark, with the light.  But remember you also need the light with the dark.  We want to see fight back. And most of all we want to see hope.  It’s what pulls us in.  A catalogue of infinite oppression might be valuable, but we get a lot of that in non fiction (The Black Book of Communism. Various books on the coming of Hitler and his depredations.) and even as non-fiction it makes for tough reading.

If you’re writing for sale, if you wish to be commercial, you must bring light into the darkness.  It will loom all the darker.  And the light will shine all the brighter for the contrast.

And in the chiaroscuro is both beauty, strength and memorability.



        1. If you (or anyone else: the invitation’s open) need pointers for DAZ, let me know. I may even be able to help with Poser (my Gravitar is an old Poser render), but not as much. Also, if you need/want comic-book shaders (render in CMYK halftone with toon outlines & stepped gradients), I’ve done a couple of those as well, no longer (but once!) carried in their store.

  1. I shocked and horrified our dear Papa Pat with the opening of a novella. The opening scene involves a dead child. And although she did not die in the action, she was simply part of the crime scene, it was dark enough to put him off – and likely other readers, too. But it was a necessity. Sometimes you really do have to put the shadows in nice and dark or you just don’t have the contrast. Easier with photos, just grab the slider bar and tweak until it looks good. Harder with words, because some readers will pick it up just fine, and others need black and white outlines to see the big picture.

    1. A writer friend asked me to read his drafts a few years ago (unfortunately, I never finished!) of a story that opened with an openly despicable POV meeting his hero. This wasn’t even the villian, just another denizen of his dystopia, but if I’d gotten the book from the library I wouldn’t have made it to the hero. At my request he recast the scene from his protagonist’s eyes, even retaining the same characters, but showing readers a clear light first so that he and they could face the whelming darkness together.

  2. I suppose I like “dark” more than some of us, but you still need some light to see in the dark.

  3. I’ve tried to get my kids (adults) to do cover art, or illustrations, or…

    I’ve given up. On the one hand, if an artist intends to pay the bills, they have to get over needing inspiration. On the other hand, well… they’re not over needing inspiration.

    Not sure what to do about that other than not try to do anything about that.

  4. Yeah, I tend to go too light in my writing, and too dark in most of my cover art.

    :: sigh :: I’ve down loaded DAZ 3D. We’ll see if the old writer can learn another new trick.

  5. I find I have to use humor to tap-dance through the dark places. You know, the gal who leads the group to the Evil Castle of Lurking DOOM, stops, looks up at the walls, the dripping cold rain, and Bats of Unusual Size, turns to her buddies and says, “Are you sure this is the address that wanted the ten cases of Thin-Mints™?” Or Tay the lemur chirps, “Avon calling!”

    You gotta throw some sparks into the darkness. Unless you know it is the gunpowder storage room and you are standing in the middle of it. Then a chem-light’s probably a better idea.

    1. But the villain could stand to be a base short, and everyone just looks so dashing when they’re missing their eyebrows…

  6. This helped me notice that a couple of things I’ve reread recently have established the light and dark nicely at the beginning.

  7. ‘They’re more temperamental than we are and few can be as “commercial.”’

    Artist here. It’s true.

    (Side note: I was given a paint-your-own Melody Peña dragonette sculpture for Christmas and I am still enjoying the anticipation of when I can paint it!)

  8. okay….

    when lighting characters, your primary source of light, whatever it is, is called a Key light. Why? five cinematography classes and I don’t remember.

    Draw an imaginary circle around your subjects. The key light is usually between thirty and forty-five degrees to one side of a line drawn between the camera and the subject.

    the Fill light, called such because you use it to fill in the shadows, is on the opposite side of that line, and is much lower intensity than the key- 1/4 the intensity is good for flat lighting like a soap opera, while a noir film look, more like 1/10 the intensity is more likely. A Noir film look, both the key and fill are likely to be more than 45 degrees off the camera line to produce more striking shadows than normal.

    the third light in a standard 3-light rig is the rim light, this is above and behind the subject. The purpose is to create a pleasing highlight along the shoulders and hair of the subject. IF you’re really looking for a dark image, this light can be minimal if not nil.

    And from updating my Daz install and fiddling around in it, I know I’d have to spend more time in Daz to figure out where things are in it.

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