In earlier installments of this “Writing by Design” series, we’ve discussed how to use the constraints of space to lend a shape to your story, and we also looked at the importance of patterns in your writing, and when and how to break them. Finally, we talked about color theory and how to use it to create characters with depth.
Today we take our fourth and final foray into writing by design. Here, we’ll tackle contrast, or light versus dark.
Contrast is essential to storytelling. When you tell a story orally, the sound of your voice weighs against the silence when you’re not speaking. On the page, the dark letter forms create a contrast against the crisp white of the paper. And even the digital document that contains your manuscript at its purest and most essential form boils down to a series of zeroes and ones in the depths of your computer’s memory.
But contrast goes beyond the mechanics of recording your story. The most interesting parts of your story are where characters, plot points, or thematic elements create contrast with each other.
And yet, contrast is a stylistic element often ignored in writing. This might be because you can’t see contrast simply by looking at one item by itself. You have to put two things together and watch how those story elements bounce off each other. Just as light can’t exist without darkness, to create contrast you need a basis of comparison.
Contrast Is Relative
In design there is a concept known as “relative contrast” which purports that an object will stand out or blend in depending on the context where it is found.
Take the image below. The small squares are the same shade of grey, but when placed against either a dark or light background they appear to be different shades. The human eye perceives the small square against the light background as darker than the one against the dark background. In other words, the context shapes how we perceive visual elements.
The same is true with story. In order for readers to resonate emotionally with the story, you need to create moments of contrast. Consider, for example, the heart-wrenching moment in The Hunger Games when Rue dies and Katniss honors her by covering her with flowers. This moment would not have nearly the same emotional impact if it weren’t happening against the violent backdrop of the Games.
Similarly, humor often gets its impact by playing off this contrast between light and dark. For example, in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, the humor often comes from the contrast between what the protagonist Greg Heffley writes in his diary and what we see actually happened via the doodles in the margins.
In my previous post about Color Theory, I shared a technique for building conflict between your characters by placing characters who seem opposite each other in the same scene. When you force characters with opposing opinions or agendas to work together, it automatically creates drama in your story. Conflicting characters often bring out the worst in each other, which allows readers to better appreciate the characters’ good qualities when those glimmers of light flicker through.
You can also build character contrast by playing their actions against their thoughts or dialogue. When characters say or do exactly what they think, there’s no tension. When characters’ behaviors and dialogue is too on-the-nose, it’s boring. Instead, you can create tension by not having actions or dialogue match up exactly with a character’s thoughts or emotions.
These moments where you create layers of subtext will resonate with readers because it feels true to life. Rarely do real people say exactly what they mean. At the same time, you can also use subtext to put readers in-the-know while the character in the scene is oblivious to what’s actually happening.
For example, in the sitcom The Office, most of the storylines consist of the main character Michael Scott doing something utterly ridiculous and getting himself or his team into trouble. The humor comes from the audience’s heightened awareness of just how bad Michael’s choices are. We see how badly the situation can become, but Michael doesn’t see it. That contrast between the information we have as the audience versus Michael’s awareness is what makes the show funny.
In the Murky Middle
The one danger with contrast is when differences—the light versus dark—becomes too exaggerated and cartoony. When you jump from happy-go-lucky scenes with the “good guys” to dark brooding scenes with your villain, it doesn’t create contrast, it just makes your readers feel disoriented.
As a die-hard Star Wars fan, it pains me to say this, but the Endor section of Return of the Jedi has serious flaws in terms of contrast. This segment of the film makes it the weakest of the original trilogy in large part because it keeps bouncing between extremes of light and dark. On one hand you have the Ewok battle on Endor with all the comic relief characters in one place. At the other extreme you have Luke facing off against Vader and the Emperor. The jumps between light and dark are so extreme that it’s hard to take Luke seriously when he tells Vader “I sense the good in you.” Really? Vader is downright evil until the very end, so his transformation is a bit hard to believe.
Like anything in writing, the subtleties and nuances are far more interesting than when elements are pushed to a stereotypical extreme. Characters are more compelling when they are both heroic and deeply flawed. Scenes are more engaging to readers when they have both elements of light and dark intertwined.
As you develop and craft your stories, I encourage you to draw on rules of design to help inform your writing. Think about both the space your story takes up on the page, and the details that you know as the writer but that never make it into the finished book. Consider too how you can establish—and break—patterns in your story. Finally, think about how you can use color theory and relative contrast create more drama between characters and in your scenes.
Our job as writers is to craft an experience for our readers, making our stories truly immersive. This is what it means to write by design.
Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIYMFA.com, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. She is also a speaker, podcast host for DIY MFA Radio, and author of DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community (Writer’s Digest Books, July 2016). Join the word nerd community at DIYMFA.com/join.