8 Mentor Texts that Shine a Light on Tone & Setting
Ideas for the Upper-elementary Writing Workshop
In This Post
Writing Sense of Sight? Let There Be Light!
A scene’s light (or its absence) shapes both tone and setting, builds tension, and adds dimension to character.
What does a scene’s light expose? What does it hide? What glimmers? What fades?
For a quick background on chiaroscuro - the role of light and darkness - as a literary device, check out this post by screenwriter and novelist Tom Avitabile. Without darkness, he reminds us, there cannot be light.
But how do we distill something this shadowy with nuance into a fifth-grade writing lesson? How does it map onto the skills we already teach? The answer, I finally discovered, is not to look at “writing light” as yet another concept to cover, but as a different lens to filter lessons on rendering sensory details - something I’d already been firing shots in the dark at.
Here’s what I mean:
The prompts and feedback I used to offer in efforts to guide my students’ descriptions of what they or their characters see would generate laundry lists - i.e., I see a dog and a car and a sidewalk - more often than the vivid and dynamic sentences I was hoping for.
It was a newfound reverence for the ways light steers story that finally pulled my sight-blind imagery lessons from darkness.
Now, I don’t ask kids what things look like. I ask them to write about what a scene’s light is doing, and remind them the role it plays will depend so often on verbs: How does it move?
In this post, I talk about ways I’ve done some similar tweaking to questions I ask about sensory details in general. Here, I’ll zoom in specifically on sense of sight imagery - and the teacher talk around it that I’ve found tends to generate the most precision in student writing.
Lights, Camera, Action(s)
I scour every middle-grade novel I share with my students for mentor sentences that model approaches to writing light, and pull these shiny examples out to illustrate lots of different strategies. This way, the kids already have some exposure to the material, a connection to the characters and a sense of the scene’s mood.
Instead of asking kids to describe what they or their characters see, I show them how mentor authors respond to questions like this not with a list of of objects, but with actions. Specifically, four kinds of action. Let’s look at each one’s spin on our example draft - I see a dog and a car and a sidewalk…
By doing something
Headlights sweep across a dog in the road…
By doing something
Moonlight mothers the dog to sleep…
By people or things doing something to or in light
The dog’s whiskers catch the moonlight…
By assuming shapes
The dog sleeps in a pool of moonlight.
Action 1: What Light Does
To model techniques for showing us what light or light sources do to a scene’s characters or objects, Madeleine L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, never disappoints. Here’s a sentence from the middle of the novel:
The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining…Then, slowly, the shining dwindled until it, too, was gone.
The light here isn’t just “there.” It’s driving an action sequence: spreading, shining then dwindling, a development - then a disappearance - that power the tension in this scene.
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Another example of light and darkness as motion, this one from Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret:
He struck a match, watched it flare, and lit a few candles. The room filled with a warm golden glow, and huge shadows rose against the walls.
A lot of movement here: light flares and fills. At the same time, shadows rise.
The author of Black Hole tells me the story is fiction based on a real-life nightmare he once had.
Here’s the first draft of one of its sentences:
You fear the sun won't come back.
Pretty ominous start, but it’s all “telling.” No imagery that shows. “Come” is a hard verb to visualize. It’s not specific enough.
When we workshopped this draft, I asked the author what the sun does in this nightmare. After working out the details in a class discussion, he came up with this revision:
You fear the sun is crumbling to pieces this hot summer evening, grabbing everything.
Now we’ve got an image! The only light source in the world of this nightmare is crumbling and grabbing, taking everything in its glow down with it. (And in case you’re wondering, this student wrote everything in second person.) Here’s the final revision as it appears in the published comic:
Action 2: Light Personified
This light writing technique is really a variation on the last one, “What Light Does.” The only difference is when light is personified, the thing it does is something humans do. Let’s look at some examples.
Here’s an example from Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord:
Then he was swallowed by the shadows.
Swallowing is something people do, and swallowing other people is especially monstrous. The shadows in this scene don’t camouflage; they consume.
Here’s one from Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Shiloh:
I stare up into the darkness of the living room and the darkness stares back.
In this scene, the narrator tries to fall asleep in an unfamiliar house. By personifying the darkness, Naylor creates an especially haunting tone. This darkness is wide-eyed and alive!
The light in this (almost) haiku by a fourth-grade poet is an eye! Her final revision - along with the nebula that sparked her poem - is on the right.
Here’s her first draft:
It looks like any eye.
Indeed, it does. But like an eye doing what? I asked the class when we workshopped the draft.
In revision, this poet took a classmate’s suggestion to make her heavenly eye move. Now, it vanishes, glittery-lashed, into the furry face of the cosmos.
With just this one verb, we get both tension and a turning point, arguably, all a poem really needs. The contrast between “heartless” and “glows” drives the theme home.
Action 3: What Things Do to Light
Here are some mentor sentences that model techniques for showing us what characters and objects do in or to (at, through, etc.) a scene’s light. Two beauties from Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys:
Moths hover, batting their wings at the streetlights.
Ballerinas on the lampshade glow.
Compare these examples with “there are…” sentences that “tell” rather than “show,” like, There are moths around the streetlights or There are ballerinas on the lampshade.
Static lines like these don’t reveal anything about tone or tension.
The moths in Rhodes’ sentences hover and bat - move in vaguely threatening ways - like the trial at the heart of the novel. The warm lampshade fantasy here contrasts with the dark fate of the novel’s narrator.
A couple more examples of a scene’s light doing things to its characters and props, these from the climax of Jerry Spinelli’s Loser:
Through the glittering snowfall he spots the Waiting Man glowing in his window…
Snowballs fly out of the darkness…
Police cars, emergency vehicles: a parade of them up the street, the snowy humps of parked cars pulsing in the swirling lights.
Compare these to static “telling” sentences like The police car lights are on or The Waiting Man is in front of his window. They don’t give us the same sense of anticipation and dread that Spinelli’s prose does here.
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Action 4: Light Patterns & Shapes
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The last “action category” is where I put mentor sentences that find shapes to hold their light or darkness.
To see what I mean, take a look at this example from The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste:
Pierre and Corinne…entered the churchyard just as the final rays of sunlight threw an orange veil over the world.
Here, sunlight is veil-shaped, and also doing something - throwing its color over the world - so this one would fit into the first category too.
When I share “shape sentences” like this one with my students, I always ask them to think of other shapes the author could have used, and how those shapes would alter tone and meaning. For example, what if this sunlight covered the the world with an orange scab or mask instead of a veil?
Another shape of light example, this one from Donna Barba Higuera’s The Last Cuentista:
Arcs of light blast out in all different directions…
How would this scene change if its light came in rainbow or spear shapes?
One year, a bunch of my students got on a nature writing kick, inspired by time-lapse landscape videos they found online — unfortunately, not by any actual nature they set foot in. (Our school’s trapped in the urban grid so YouTube has to suffice as our window to the wild.)
Here’s a sentence from an early draft of Whoosh by a third-grade poet:
The weather will be nicer in May.
When we workshopped her draft with the class, I asked about what happens in May. What’s the weather doing in May that’s “nicer”? To answer my question, this poet zoomed in on several different elements of her imaginary landscape, “exploding the moment” with a “Part Chart” (more on those in this post).
Check out the final revision of this section (left) in her published graphic poem, where her sunlight has transformed into vein-shaped stuff that pokes. Way more detailed than “nicer,” this description paints the light here as an incipient life force.