In art school, we learned that visual art is one thing: Contrast. Without contrast, you don’t have art. Art is what’s in between two different colors. Even a stick figure cannot exist without the black line to create contrast on a white page.
Contrast is what’s interesting.
Writing is the same way.
It’s all about the contrast!
It’s hard not to love a character doing something they don’t typically do. To watch Han Solo being altruistic, to read as Ron Weasley does something brave, to see Edward Cullen brood and—wait, no, that’s not interesting.
See what I mean?
We like surprises! Surprise is why we read or watch. We want something to turn the tables a bit, and add some character contrast.
I’m much more likely to care when Bruce Wayne is angry if I know what he’s like when he’s happy because it gives me something to miss, something to long for for him. Next time you have a tragic scene to write, try butting it up against a happy scene. Your characters are enjoying life, enjoying each other, and then suddenly everything changes and your readers are hurled backwards at break-neck speed into a world of Feels™.
One of my favorite scenes in all of "Orange is the New Black” is in episode 3. We’ve just followed Piper into the lion’s den, she’s been stripped of her old life and is trying to figure out what to do now that she’s in (spoiler alert) prison. The first two episodes are a dark, emotional ride and then, the clouds clear. The episode begins with Piper getting a cup of coffee and a book from the library. She takes this outside to sit under a tree. The lighting is gorgeous, it’s early morning, the grass in the yard is dewy, you forget for half a second that she’s in prison. The binge watchers who have been holding their breath since the beginning of episode 1 finally breathe!
I love this scene. I can’t talk about it enough. It makes Piper feel real, it makes her experience feel real, and it makes the horrible stuff that happens all the more painful because you see how, even in this situation, she might have found some inner peace.
The episode goes on to be a larger tonal contrast, its main problem regarding an impossible chicken in the yard that Red’s obsessed with catching. The episode is fun, light, and a stark contrast to what we’ve seen so far. It’s wonderful.
You know how running gets harder if you stop and then start again? Well, emotional weight in a story is the same way. It hits your reader harder if you take a break and if they don’t see it coming. This is the idea behind the “false hope” moment that many writing authorities tout. You think it’s over, Godzilla is slowly disappearing back into the ocean, the lovers get their first kiss then- BAM! Oh, hi, Godzilla’s Mom. Did you know their first kiss was also their last because HA! He’s dead now. Peanut allergy. Very severe. She just ate her afternoon PB&J. See? It hits you harder.
So please, if you’ve going to write a dark, serious story with dark, serious characters… give them a moment to breathe. Give them at least a scene to be happy in so we care about the dark. And if you’re a humor writer like me? Those Feels™ are going to hit even harder if you keep them at a minimum.
This is Laura Loup, begging DC to let Batman crack a joke and signing off!