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.