Lana is a graphic artist. She’s shown me many times the importance of light and shadow in painting. Too, we often sit on Sundays to watch the artist Bob Ross’s TV show, and I see his brush illustrate the importance of highlights that bring trees and mountainsides to life, and of shadows that create the mystery of a forest.
Descriptive writing is not much different. Light and shadow are critical to word art, as well. It is critical in a literal sense, for one. Read some favorite descriptive passages from books you love and I bet you’ll find the play of light within the play of words. “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun…” (Hemingway). “That country…where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay” (Bradbury). Any page from Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard.
But light and shadow are critical as metaphors, as well. Whether you call it good and evil or black and white, or whether you speak only of “shades of gray,” you are dealing with light and shadow, with the juxtaposition and interrelationship of things that people often think of as opposites but which are not. Light is the mother of shadow, and shadow is not the absence of light, but the muting of it.
I realized after my Monday entry that the core of that scene was about light and shadow. And it began to occur to me how important this relationship is in all my writing. I bet it’s true for you as well. And if it isn’t, I’d like to know what replaces it for you.
“Kainja looked up from the ruins, past the vultures with their bladed wings, past the darkening valley to where a chill wind swept like a broom across the snowfields of the Himalayan Range. There lay the swelling curve of the Khumbu Glacier, bright in the sun, with white Everest to the east. He would have to go up that glacier, but the trail would be easily followed. It would be marked by the smell of shed blood.” (From “Wanting the Mouth of a Lover.”)
“The moonlight settled over the December beach like snow birds coming in to roost on an arctic plain. And the midnight world was brush-stroked in white, the white of sand and shells and stones, the white of bones and ghosts. In the midst of that white was a splatter of black, or what could have been red in brighter hours. It reminded Kyle of a snowflake in negative, and he thought it was incredibly beautiful until he realized what it represented. Then he dropped the cigarette that he'd walked out on the beach to smoke, and he reached down with his thumb to unsnap the strap that held his Colt Trooper in its holster.” (From, “Splatter of Black.”)