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 http://www.writingexcuses.com/ 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.