Jun 19, 2015

But I Just Want to Write About my Pet Rock: Here's the Missing Ingredient in Your Story

Do you know what contrast is? If somebody asked you point blank, would you have a ready answer?

Now ask yourself: Do I know what contrast is for?

Tilikum Crossing Flooded with Light
by John Magnet Bell
view it on an awesome t-shirt || view it on a cool tote bag


We think we know these things. Your intuition tells you when contrast is missing, but it doesn't always tell you how to fix it. Before we start looking for answers to the questions above, though, let's posit a workable definition of the noun "contrast."

Dictionary.reference.com defines contrast variously as "a striking exhibition of unlikeness" and "opposition or juxtaposition of different forms, lines, or colors in a work of art to intensify each element's properties and produce a more dynamic expressiveness."

Merriam-Webster suggests "to be different especially in a way that is very obvious."

While the Free Dictionary offers "distinction or emphasis of difference by comparison of opposite or dissimilar things, qualities, etc."

Let's fish out some keywords, shall we?

Unlikeness.
Opposition.
Juxtaposition.
Emphasis.

So, with those keywords in mind, let us say that contrast is the expression of ideas (forms or content) that are unlike one another and may be opposed or juxtaposed with different emphases in order to create a perceptual dynamic.

Take a look at the picture below.



Hard to make out anything, right? I deliberately fudged the color and shape contrast.

This is in fact one of my photographic collages, Mr. Glitch, 4: Broken Hopes.



By using color accents within a limited palette, I draw your attention to specific parts of the picture. I do the same with values of light and dark. By making that apple larger than any apple could ever be, I create a contrast in your mind between the possible and the absurd. Contrast, be it about shape or color, creates dynamics.

Yeah, OK, I hear you ask, but how does any of this apply to writing?

Well, Have you ever watched the movie Serpico, starring Al Pacino? Right from the start, Serpico wants to be a good cop, wants to be on the up and up. He faces opposition and resistance all the time. Even his girlfriend wants him to get with the program. Nobody wants to be his partner because he won't take bribes. He won't participate in protection rackets. He won't bend just because everybody else has. That's a strong contrast right there: Somebody who steps into a world of shit because "This is how we do things" is just not good enough, and keeps running into the fragile excuses that the corrupt make for themselves.[1]

Contrast in Serpico is achieved through character.  Serpico is emphatically not like the people around him. He is more driven, more persistent, more demanding of himself and others.

A still from Serpico.


Or, take Game of Thrones (the TV show; I can't discuss the books, as I haven't read them). I begin to feel that there are basically two categories of human being in GoT — thugs and victims, exploiters and the exploited, consummate liars and gullible people[2]. Nothing in the middle. It's not the most subtle gradation and all but the most prominent characters become something of a blur. Then you have your super-thugs, which aren't even human: White Walkers with their zombie army, plus a rampaging dragon. It makes for poor watching after a while.

Still from Game of Thrones: White Walker portrayed by Ross Mullan. Via interview on The Verge.


Yet Game of Thrones does have contrasting features, otherwise people would just stop watching. It achieves this, among other things, through color schemes. Up north, by the Wall, the color scheme is almost black and white. The Wildlings dress in practically colorless animal furs. The men of the Watch wear black, black and more black. Rare concessions to color include people's hair and the sickly blue of omnipresent snow, echoed by the abyssal eyes of the White Walkers. Down in King's Landing, devotees of the Faith Militant signal their asceticism by dressing all alike in crude robes of black wool, in stark contrast to the red and gold, the silk and velvet and the floral chasings of court dress. And then, you know, there's the somewhat unfortunate case of the white, ash-blonde Daenerys leading, "saving" and "emancipating" her legions of black/brown people.

However, a story cannot live on visuals alone.

So how can you tell that contrast is lacking in your writing?

ψ If all your characters move, think and talk alike, you don't have separate characters.

ψ When you can't define your characters' motivations (seriously, everybody wants something) they will just schlep along, unchanging and uninteresting. They will exit the stage as they entered: aimlessly. Considering the psychology of a character, if the end and the beginning are interchangeable, then that character is not protagonist material. Supporting cast, maybe. And even then...

ψ When each place in the setting looks the same as every other place, and does nothing but provide your characters with locales to stand in or move through, you don't have separate locations. It's all one big, monochrome blot.

ψ If chapter two doesn't add change and relevance, you don't have contrast. Just continuity. You don't have emphasis, what you have is repetition.

NOTES:
[1] Also the basic narrative premise for Lieutenant Jim Gordon in Batman: Year One. To a lesser degree in Batman Begins.
[2] In case you're wondering, to me both Daenerys and Brienne of Tarth lie closer to thug than victim on the thug-victim spectrum. Nobody is an exemplar of moral conduct in Game of Thrones, and that's one of the show's failings — its worldview is not wide enough to shunt cynicism aside for a couple of minutes. The constant message in GoT is that 99% of human beings want nothing but power over their fellows, and those foolish enough to want something else must adapt or die. You'd think someone in that endless cast of characters would develop beyond refined hypocrisy, for crying out loud. 

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