Saturday, July 28, 2012

Week 31 - Contrast

29 Jul - 4 Aug: 10 Points About Contrast

If you want to emphasize something, contrast it.  This is pretty obvious when we take our holiday snaps, but how can we apply it to writing?

Consider the three main ingredients of a story: characters, plot and setting.

Let's start with character development:

1. Characters coloured with strange phobias, weird habits, or unusual philosophies, provide different avenues for conflict within a story, and provide a healthy contrast to the concrete (ie. less interesting) characters in a story.  Besides, these oddities are realistic - just think of the people you've met who turned out to have surprising quirks, hobbies or habits.  One must be careful not to overdo the idiosyncrasies though, otherwise the reader will be distracted by how many wackos are in the story.  Beware, also, the dichotomous stereotype (2012 Novel and Short Story Handbook edited by Adria Haley) such as the gangster who loves his momma.  Yes, it's a contrast, but a very predictable one.

2. In So You Want to Write, Joan Rosier-Jones looks at philosophical contrasts between characters as a way of invoking conflict.  She provides the example of a capitalist businessman meeting a bag lady.  There are plenty of other real-life examples of conflicting perspectives to chose from, e.g., the conservationist and the developer, the animal right's activist and the socialite wearing furs.

And plot:

3. James N. Frey (How To Write Damn Good Fiction) suggests enriching plot by contrasting characters with their settings.  When characters land in unfamiliar surroundings, perspective is fresh and conflict is imminent as they struggle to adapt, escape or accept.  Consider the high school princess sent to prison, the Wall Street broker in an African village or a street urchin in a palace.

4. When the reader maintains the, 'What happens next?' question, the pages keep turning.  The plot, therefore, must take inevitable but surprising turns.  At a decision point, consider the most logical outcome, and then experiment with the opposite to see how it affects plot and pace.

 And lastly, setting:

5. In Elements of Fiction Writing, Jack Bickham suggests comparing a character's new environment with an old one.  This serves to highlight a particular element of the setting as well as develop a character's perspective.  E.g., He hugged the hood of the anorak around his face and wondered what drove him from the familiar shores of Monterey to Denali in winter.

6. A setting can add intrigue and mystery to a story when it features incongruous elements, e.g., a train station platform that serves as the doorway to a wizardry school; a wardrobe that leads to a mystical world.  Need I say more?

And to finish off, here are some random points that relate to the building blocks of writing (i.e., words and ideas):

7.  Inappropriate, unexpected, or exaggerated adjectives can enhance humour.

8. Adverbs, when used, should contrast, not amplify their verbs. Roy Peter Clark asks the question: What is more effective, Killing Me Softly or Killing me Fiercely?

9.  Similarly, metaphors and similes can use contrasting images to emphasize an aspect of the thing being described, and is particularly useful for irony, e.g., as quiet as a lion.

10. And lastly, here are some definitions for contrasting techniques supplied by Peter Clark:
  • defamiliarization takes the familiar and makes it odd and interesting;
  • familiarization takes the strange and makes it comprehensible.

Exercise 61.  Make a list of characters with philosophical differences, e.g., a banker and bag-lady.  Now use their differences to write a piece of dialogue between two of them.  (From, So You Want to Write by Jean Rosier-Jones.)

Exercise 62.  Think of a ‘normal’ action or object and insert it into a ‘normal’ situation or setting but one completely out of context (e.g., a pig riding an escalator, a nun sipping tea in a snowstorm, a human skull in a children’s playground).  Now, write a story that sets the scene and then goes on to provide a logical explanation for the incongruity.

Week 32 will consider other tools used for Humour.


  1. "...comparing a character's new environment with an old one..."

    Great! I will use this tip today. My protagonist will compare his new setting to an old one to develop a contrast between lush and spacious.

    Another valuable pointer.

  2. I'm glad you found something to add to your arsenal of writing tools. Lush and spacious... interesting.