A Painter's Eye - Contrast in storytelling

In painting, nothing has weight without contrast. It’s the most basic building block of any image, allowing our eyes to understand where something ends and something else begins. In fact contrast is the very first thing we recognize in any image, and it provokes the most visceral, immediate response. There's a whole segment of cognition dedicated to it called "Gestalt Theory". Without contrast there can be no shape, no composition, no flow. Without contrast all you've got is a blank, boring canvas.

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Contrast creates composition. Objects are shaped into silhouettes by contrast and these silhouettes interact to create visual tension. Our mind then works to fill in the blanks wherever it can infer context.

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Now wait a minute, what does this have to do with writing?

Think about it like this: Both painting and writing are ways to create emotional reactions. The audience respond to both art forms in the same way, that is by feeling something. And everything we feel is a reaction - you guessed it - contrast!

Have you ever noticed how, when you’re already happy, good news doesn’t have the same effect as when you’re in a bad mood? Not much can “make your day” when you’re already having a good day. But on a bad day even a small piece of positive news can make a big difference. On the other hand, stepping in a puddle when you’re on your way to propose to the love of your life can really take the swing out of your step. It's all about contrast. We feel emotions more if they conflict with what we are currently feeling, just as we react to new information more intensely if it conflicts with the information we already have. In the same way the eye reacts to seeing things that differ from what we’ve seen most recently. This is what "catches" the eye. Both painters and writers can use this knowledge to guide their audience towards specific emotional responses, both positive and negative. But it doesn't end there.

Chances are as a writer you’re already familiar with this concept. Any significant event in a story generally needs a counterpoint to work more effectively. For example, for the hero to suffer a great loss we must first establish the weight of that loss by showing what our hero had in the first place. As another example, if our hero falls in love it is usually contrasted against somebody else’s hatred, anger or resistance to give it weight. Think star-crossed lovers - their passion always burns brightest because it is contrasted by tragegy. In visual terms a color is most intense when it is contrasted with a dissimilar color:

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So far so good, nothing surprising. Storytelling 101 really. If you take the concept further though there are two more levels that contrast can be applied to.

Consider this painting:

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Contrast is the trail of bread crumbs that our mind follows through any experience. In this particular painting it looks like this:

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Now consider the same scene in writing and you’ll see that we can show the same contrast through a description of the scene:
    “As the sun melted into the horizon, angry clouds gathered above the mountain pass.”

Questionable comma placement aside you can sense the same contrast as in that painting. While the sun “melting” into the horizon feels soft and warm, the angry clouds suggest a harshness that catches the reader’s attention. Without the contrast against the warm sunset the clouds wouldn’t feel quite so striking. Since we're talking about a single sentence here we call this the micro level. It doesn't get any smaller than this when it comes to affecting your readers and yet contrast can be applied thoughtfully to great effect.

 Consider this version of the painting:

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Without the sunset the clouds lose much of their impact. The same is true if we change the sentence to remove the contrast:
    "At the end of the day angry clouds gathered above the mountain pass."

It's only a subtle difference in both the painting and the sentence yet there it is, affecting your reader in some small way.

This is the micro level of storytelling, where individual words can provide subtle contrast to one another to liven up the story. Because it is "micro" the effect is rather small, but it is there and it can and should be used.


If we look on the other end of the spectrum we have the macro level where whole scenes and chapters contrast against each other. Consider the following plot chart:

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These are rises and falls in intensity over the course of a whole novel. On a huge scale like this you can already feel the effect of contrast. You can feel its weight. A high-intensity scene preceded by a low-intensity scene creates much more of a jolt to the reader and therefore has more impact. Imagine if you had two car chases in a row. That would certainly lessen the impact of the second one, wouldn't it? So naturally you would put something in between the two chases to give the reader some room to breathe, and to prime the reader for another jolt as we get into the second chase scene. Again, it's storytelling 101.

As with everything though there are exceptions and ways to break those rules to great effect. A plot chart may be an obvious way to visualize the intensity or "stakes" of a story but it doesn't come close to covering all the possibilities.

Now have a look at this plot chart:

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That's a no-no, right? Three high-intensity scenes in a row? Not necessarily. The beautiful thing about contrast is that there are a million ways to create it. Anything creates some sort of contrast against pretty much anything else, it's just a question of how much. So break the rules! Want to really wow your reader? Try contrasting a high-intensity love scene with a high-intensity battle scene. Or a car race with a tense stand-off between armed gangs.

Your traditional plot chart may seem a bit boring for both because your intensity stays high, but the contrast in tone can more than make up for that. Just keep in mind to mix it up and give your readers a chance to come down from all these intense scenes.

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Just for fun here is the same principle applied to painting. Have a look at this image:

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While it looks boring when viewed like this - in greyscale, focusing on traditional brightness for contrast - let's see what happens when we turn it back into color:

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Much better, right? This technique is called "contrast of hues" and it creates quite an unusual but nevertheless striking effect. It’s contrast but not as we usually see it. It is less commonly used as the primary means of creating contrast than the traditional "contrast of brightness" (or "contrast of value" to a painter), but you can spot it in most paintings playing a secondary role. It's there in the background carefully directing your attention, and sometimes a bold painter will put it front and center catch us by surprise.

 

So what’s the whole point of this exercise? The point is that there are a million different ways to create contrast, and we typically use only a small subset of those ways. However the contrast is created though, the effect to our perception is the same: Contrast attracts attention. It leads the mind through a story the way it leads the eye through a painting and so it plays a crucial role in directing our experience. So use it. Use all of it. Stick to the rules. Break the rules. Experiment. Think of your story as a series of contrast points and see where you can lead your reader.

And write better books!