Contrasting Success

I love the concept of contrast in stories.  A happy scene next to a sad scene, or a plot twist right after a joke– that sort of thing makes things surprising.  It keeps the audience on their toes.  More than that, setting up a happy scene next to a sad scene makes the sad scene more powerful.  It might not have been originally, but by comparison, it seems enormous and shocking, just the kind of emotion you want as a writer.

However, it doesn’t only work that way.  Happy to sad is great because it gives the sadness more punch, but what about sadness to happiness?  Actually, what about weakness to strength?

Seeing an apparent victory suddenly turn into defeat is powerful.  After this emotional high of success, the character is shown his true incompetence, and he plummets into despair.  I adore that sort of plot twist.  It works wonders, and I’m not saying that it’s a bad style, or unworthy of your consideration.  I’m simply introducing another option.

Imagine the character who just found out he’s deathly allergic to grapefruit.  In this terrible scene, he is forced to rethink his entire identity based on this single weakness– how will he ever survive without his grapefruit?  That’s a weakness.

In the next scene, he’s pitted against an army who worship the grapefruit and wear its rind on their helmets and on their spears as they march into battle.  He cannot turn back– he cannot claim his weakness as a reason to forfeit.  He must soldier on, even though this could be the death of him.

What do these two scenes create?  Suspense.  Suspense is the anticipation of something bad happening at an ambiguous point in the future.  We’re always on our toes, trying to predict when it will happen.  The danger is not yet behind us.

Because of that suspense, it puts the beginning of the scene at an emotional low.  The character knows he’s going to die in this battle, but he can’t do anything about it.  All he can do is fight and try to stay alive.  Imagine the emotion at the end of the scene, when the character realizes he’s still alive– he managed to avoid all the grapefruits and still vanquish his foes.  He succeeded.  That’s the strength.

This quick pull from weakness to strength creates an enormous heroic moment.  The hero succeeded against all odds– we love that sort of story!  The suspense we feel at the beginning is so palpable, but when the hero succeeds, we love it.  We’re even more interested in the hero than we were at the beginning of the scene.

If you think about it, this technique works even in the middle of a larger story.  The overcoming of grapefruit is just a small limitation– it isn’t the main plot.  (If it was the main plot, you wouldn’t have your character discover he was allergic just before the final battle, so this doesn’t really apply.)  It’s a subplot, and although he overcame it this once, he hasn’t cured himself of it.  It could still come back to bite him later in the story.  That works well as a chapter-ending sour note, pushing the audience to continue.

This is such an instrumental concept, I should have realized it earlier.  On the enormous scale, this is what all heroic stories are– the hero starts out at a low, fully cognizant of their inabilities, and finishes the story at a high, having succeeded against his chosen antagonist.  On the smaller scale, this is the form of many little victories in the course of the book.  The main character has to succeed sometime, but we have to remind the audience of their imminent doom all the way along.  A lot of times, we simply assume the character has to keep failing and failing until suddenly, he succeeds!  But that’s not always how it works.  Sure, there are try-fail cycles along the way, but you’d have a hard time writing a story if your character failed at absolutely everything.  What if they failed at breathing?  (“I don’t understand why my characters keep dying!  I’m supposed to make it hard for them, aren’t I?  It’s not my fault– it’s what the story needs!”)

If you do it right, this can be extremely powerful.  Every failure sets the character up for a success, which in turn sets him up for a failure.  The cycle continues until things get so large that further failure means there’s no chance of success.  That’s pretty much where you stop, I suppose.

Or you could keep going and make it a tragedy, I guess.  Have fun with that.


29 thoughts on “Contrasting Success

  1. An interesting concept. But I think the happy-sad contrast may be very easy to mess up.

    (Also, an army that worships grapefruit? Where can I sign up?)

      1. xD We shall be allies, then. Lord Grapefruit and Lord Marshmallow, marching into battle to take over the Land of Food.

    1. I do it a lot – write it, that is, not mess it up. Works a charm. Especially if you’re being light-hearted and then a seemingly incidental remark leaves one of the characters in tears.

      1. It seems like a good idea. I’m going to give it a shot. But I worry that in two scenes divided by a scene-break, a happy scene and a sad one would sort of look…random or something. I know the idea is to juxtapose them, but I worry that it would be too abrupt, and therefore the emotional impact steadily diluted.

      2. I don’t know how you’d do it smoothly with a scene break, but I do it all in one scene. So, say there’s this guy who’s adopted a little girl – or better yet, a Jedi Master who’s adopted an orphaned Padawan. And they’re just hanging around, talking, you know, like dad-and-kid stuff. Which would be the lighthearted part. Even better if one of the Master’s friends is a bit of a clown and he’s there too. And then one of them – one of the grownups that is – says something that could be taken as a reference to a tragic event in the kid’s past, that the reader knows about but the grownups don’t. So there you get dramatic irony and the flick over to “Sad” all at once.
        And if you see ErinKenobi around don’t tell her I said any of this stuff because she’s not seen the story involving this stuff yet.

      3. I see. That works, too. And don’t worry, I shan’t breathe a word to ErinKenobi.

        By the way, is that a scene from a fanfiction you’re writing or something? :3

    2. You’re right, but once you understand it, it’s easy to do correctly as well. For example, Rowling did this really well– whenever Harry pulled a prank on Snape, or Malfoy, or anyone who the reader was supposed to hate, it counted as a happy scene. Then, in the next scene– or in a continuation of the same scene– Harry gets punished for it. That’s the sad part. That’s sort of what the happy-sad contrast is like.

      1. Not necessarily– that was just an example of one popular way to juxtapose the two. The real appeal to this is the contrast, and you can contrast emotions without having the same subject.

      2. Hmm. That’s what I originally thought. I haven’t been able to master this yet. I think I ought to actively try.

      3. It’s a good thing to work on, but if you can’t get it, don’t worry too much about it. Just keep it in the back of your mind and someday you’ll realize you did it right. (I’m still waiting for that someday. I hope it comes soon.)

      4. Like how I developed my ability to make good characters. Thank you, Twilight, for teaching me how not to do it.

      1. The way I’ve been thinking about is it sort of like a success-fail pendulum. Example: The villagers don’t like the MC, so she tries to prove herself, but in doing so she makes more of them angry. Then she wins more over and things start to get better, but then something bad happens. There’s some bonding time whilst cleaning up after said bad thing, but then something even worse happens and she gets blamed for it (with good reason.)

        Part of the problem I was having was emotional monotonousness, and hopefully this success-fail pendulum helps to fix that. *Crosses fingers.*

      2. The fail-toward-success side is definitely like a pendulum, but it’s more like a sudden explosion when the success-to-fail happens. Maybe.

        Glad it’s working for you.

  2. I think you make an excellent point here. That said, one has to be careful not to do a complete u-turn in contrast. Can’t be jumping from the death of a beloved character to a song and dance routine about the joys of being a rabbit, can we? I think one has to bear in mind the relationship between the scenes, and how both will affect each other, to make it extra punchy.

      1. That it does. And it works even better when the contrast is made sensitively and with best effect in mind, without pushing it too far.

      2. Very true. Even in comedies, you don’t want to go from a song-and-dance to the dog’s death, even though that would be a spectacular reversal of emotions.

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