If you ever want to figure out exactly how bright the sun is, go into a dark room until your eyes adjust, then run outside and look at that flaming ball of fire in the sky.

Rather, don’t, because it’ll wreak havoc with your eyesight.

The point is, by contrasting two extremes, you can get a sense for anything.  Go into the dark, then look at the light, and you get a sense of how bright it is.  Of course, you can get an exaggerated sense for anything as well by the same method; starve yourself for a few days, and whatever food you eat afterward will taste like heaven.  It might be exaggerated, considering that you just devoured your least favorite food with multiple exclamations of delight, which you never would have done otherwise.  Nevertheless, it’s a sense, and it’s a sense you can use to shape your thinking.

Two days ago, I blogged about emotions.  In that post, I raised the question of how to create a genuine sense of surprise when you know what’s coming.  I think I’ve found part of the answer, and it is contrast.

As I said, contrast will give you a sense for just about anything.  Light and dark, food and the lack thereof, safety and danger.  By contrasting the two extremes, you can make anything seem surprising.  The light was probably much brighter than you expected, just because you were coming from the other extreme.  In the same way, you can make danger seem very real and sudden just by giving an extreme sense of safety beforehand.

This works in both the micro and the macro, so bear with me and I’ll get to both.  If I don’t, please remind me.

We’ll start with the micro: the contrasts within scenes, characters, sentences.  Well, not sentences.  But you can give a good idea of character by setting two very, very different characters side by side.  Sam and Steve, my pair of fictional ping pong balls, have two very different personalities: happy and homicidal.  Steve hates, Sam does not.  It’s the way they are, and because of their contrast, you can see both characters very quickly and easily.  This is told of in Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint.

Within scenes, as I said earlier, you can make danger seem real by showing safety beforehand.  You assumed your characters were alone until they heard a rustle behind them.  All of a sudden, suspense is there where there was none before.  But if your characters are constantly watching for pursuit and then they’re proved correct, it lacks punch.  Sort of like that one party where the lemur and the fish– sorry, off topic.

The contrast between the mundane and the magical is the most effective kind, I think.  (I used “magical” so I could have an alliteration.  Anything weird will work.)  Oh, look, the character thinks; a stuffed animal sitting by the window.  How cute.  I wonder who owns…  Did it just blink?  Suddenly the character realizes why there was a skeleton pushed behind the door.  This example is actually much more profound than I thought.  The skeleton is weird.  The stuffed animal is remarkably not.  The fact that it blinked is weird.  Strange, normal, strange again.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition, especially if you can get it right.  Something normal right in the middle of chaos is extremely confusing, yet interesting.

I’ve heard that you can find story ideas this way, by contrasting the normal with the strange.  Wizards in boarding school is a popular example.

In a book I just read (it was actually a horror novel, and I’ll be reviewing it soon), the final battle had just finished.  The chapter ended with the sentence, “It had begun to snow.”  Who really cares?  Snow is normal, especially after battling a demon for your mother’s vital organs!  Snow?  What’s interesting about snow?  But that’s what made the chapter ending so poetic and interesting.  That single normal thing the character notices out of all this crazy stuff makes it all the more… I don’t know.  Poetic, as I said.  Horror writing is extremely so.

The calm before the storm.  An idiom illustrating exactly this: the contrast between nothing and something.

You can see that extremely well in the movie Castaway.  The main character is in a plane bathroom, slowly unwrapping a bandage on his thumb.  Suddenly, there’s a loud noise and the plane shakes, throwing the character against the walls.  He runs outside the bathroom and the plane crashes.  The calm… and the storm.  It’s extremely startling.

Now to scenes as a whole.  (The macro, so no, I didn’t forget.)  Within scenes, you can do multitudes of interesting things, but scenes themselves– no one really thinks about contrasting scenes themselves.  True, you have scene-sequel format, which is the contrast between action and figuring out what happened during that action (which I suggest you research somewhere else, because I’m not going to explain it right now– go to and listen to the latest episode on Narrative Rhythm for that), but that isn’t quite what I’m talking about.

Two days ago, in my post on emotions, I talked briefly about an outlining technique to tag emotions to specific scenes.  (Incidentally, they talk about that too on that episode linked to above, and the guy who talks about it wrote the horror story I talked about above.  You might say that these two posts were inspired.)  That’s what I mean by contrast within scenes.  In the director’s commentary for the wonderful movie Nanny McPhee, the director says something great about this.  He points out that the screenwriter did an excellent job putting a very happy scene next to an extremely sad one.  The contrast there made the sad scene all the more powerful.  If you use the emotion method, you might be able to plan that out a little better.

So what I’m trying to say here is that contrast is great.  If you can keep things at extremes, it can work quite well at surprising both you and the reader, which is what I said you had to do for most emotions to work.  Whether happy scene and sad scene, calm and storm, or just red fish and blue fish, it will work.

So.  That’s my post.  Sorry for being extremely scatterbrained, but I wrote it under personally-affixed time restraints, and I have lots of comments to get to.  I hope it makes sense.


47 thoughts on “Contrast

  1. Oh, darn. You just reminded me that I have the four latest episodes of Writing Excuses to listen to…

    But that’s off topic. That’s a good point, actually, that I’ve never thought of before. Sadly, I don’t have anything to add. Yet. I’m sure I’ll think of something about next week or so.

    So, what happened with the lemur and the fish…?

      1. I do the same thing! Contrasting with color in my art, I mean. I use opposite colors from the color wheel, so yellow and purple, blue and orange, and red and green. It works wonders.

  2. Oh, I definitely agree. Lately I’ve been too focused on drawing eyes to remember that contrast and comparison are my two favorite weapons of choice (the former meaning the heightened similarities of two given ideas and the latter meaning the heightened differences). Though I use these tools in writing (or at least hope so), I use them more often in my art. For an example of contrast, I’ll use red and purple together, and for an example of comparison, I’ll use my favorite color combination, yellow and blue.
    *salutes and walks mysteriously into the unknown*

      1. Fortunately for us, contrast is one of the less complicated writing tools to understand.

      2. Sorry, I swapped the meanings of ‘contrast’ and ‘comparison’! Contrast is the heightened differences and comparison is the heightened similarities. Oops. I felt so smart when I typed out that comment.

  3. Good post. Contrast is an interesting point. And that “did it just blink” about the stuffed animal… Blinking stuffed animals (and dolls) are creepy! Stay up too late, watch something scary, then be scared of the animals (or any doll for that matter) getting you… having an idea that something could get you. But I’m not going to rewrite your suspense post here.

    Did you know Nanny McPhee is based on a book? 🙂

    1. I’m glad you liked the example. And yes, I knew that Nanny McPhee is based off of Nurse Matilda, with her enormous tombstone of a tooth sticking out over her lower lip. I’ve never read them, but I know of them.

  4. Great post! It seems like you are putting a lot of thought into writing, which is a pleasant contrast (eh? Eh? Contrast–see what I did there?) from a lot of writing these days 🙂

  5. It certainly had a rather scatter-brained feel, but this post contains some very useful thoughts. I am, at the moment, writing a short novel for Camp NaNo WriMo, so both of your last two posts will come very much in handy. Thanks for writing them!

      1. I haven’t been finding it easy, but it’s not impossible either.

        With the emotions, so far it has seemed like when I try to make a scene carry a particular emotion, it is an emotion in my main character, not necessarily the emotion that my reader will feel. For example, I have one scene where my MC is feeling angry. But the reader would not be feeling angry — if anything, they would be feeling disgusted with the MC. Does that count as an emotion for the scene?

        Now to work up some nasty experiences to contrast with the lovely time my characters have been having.

      2. Well, you want the emotions of the characters to carry through into the narrative and from there into the reader, so you do want the character’s emotions to become the reader’s. If the character should be angry, the readers should be angry. If the main character is unjustifiably angry, then you should have a side character who sees things a little more clearly, and that emotion should carry through to the reader.

  6. Well, well, well. Very helpful. I never really thought about that before. I shall have to remember this while I’m writing this first draft (which is starting to get a little long…I think I may have to pick up the pace a bit) and while I’m editing. Thanks as always.

  7. Well said! However, I do think one has to watch out for making the contrast TOO high. Having a happy scene suddenly swap into The End of The World can sometimes get a little bit over the top, and can seem contrived if not handled well. Personally, I think contrasts are great – there’d be no story without them, after all, as your hero contrasts to your villain et cetera, et cetera. But, as I said before, you need to keep an eye on maintaining consistent strands and development as well as the contrasts.

    Then again, without contrast, you’d never get a plot twist worth half a wet haddock. It’s a balance, but luckily it’ not half as hard as you’d think it was from this comment xD

    1. Indeed. One of the great plot twists is the trap for the main character: something really happy that he could never miss, like his sister’s wedding or something, and then the villain makes his appearance, having blackmailed them into inviting our hero to his doom. Happy and devastating, in short sequence.

      1. Oh yes, THAT works, but then the revelation of the setup is essential. If the villain was just there, with no explanation as to why, it would be too much.

      2. Very entertaining, oh yes. Plenty of room for them to be proved wrong and go on either upward or downward spirals from there, too.

  8. Hm…Interesting. I’ve never really thought much about contrast before. I think I struggle mostly with creating contrasting characters. In one of my stories, especially, there is a reason that the two main characters are very similar, so that makes it hard for me to differentiate them at times. And if I’m having trouble distinguishing them, then I can only imagine how similar they must sound to the reader…

    1. I have the same problems sometimes. If you look at the Phil Phorce, almost every member is insulting and conceited, except for Sam, Isaac, and perhaps Phoenix. It’s hard to keep things true to each character when they’re so similar.

  9. How very interesting. Once again, this is something I hadn’t thought of. Well, that’s not quite true. In my plans for one of my stories, the contrast between two characters plays a big part, but I’d never thought of scene contrast and such.

    Nice Dr. Seuss reference.

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