Using Contrast To Improve Your Story

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about the value of contrast in fiction. This was something I was reminded of by a computer game, of all things. Although I still don’t seem to be able to get past one of the earlier parts of it, I’ve been playing a modern survival horror game called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018) again. One of the reasons why this game is so scary is because the player is constantly torn between pressing forward and exploring the creepy mansion and hiding from the scary residents of said mansion.

In other words, it is a really interesting use of contrast. But, this was far from the only interesting use of contrast I’ve seen recently. When I started reading “Origin” by Dan Brown recently, I was surprised at how formal and descriptive the narration in this thriller novel can be at times. Yet, when contrasted with the novel’s suspenseful plot, these more formal moments create an atmosphere that is both compellingly thrilling and yet strangely relaxing at the same time. It’s kind of difficult to describe fully, but it’s a really interesting effect.

Of course, these are far from the only ways that contrast can be used to have a dramatic effect on the audience. A classic example of effective contrast can be found in 1980s British splatterpunk horror fiction (by authors like Shaun Hutson and Clive Barker) where grotesque moments will often be described in the kind of “beautiful” ultra-detailed way that a writer might traditionally use when describing a sculpture, garden etc… This contrast between beauty and horror really adds a lot of extra impact to these scenes.

The best types of contrast are usually between the subject matter and the style that it is presented. Not only does this create a tension between familiarity and unfamiliarity that creates an effect that Sigmund Freud described as “The Uncanny“, but it also creates unexpected conflicting emotions in the audience too.

Although comedy and horror are the two genres where this sort of thing is the most effective, it can be used in other genres too. For example, the TV show “Firefly” is a sci-fi series that is heavily influenced by the western genre. This gives it a really fascinating tension between old and new that lends the show a surprisingly timeless and quirky atmosphere.

Of course, there are other types of contrast that you can use too. For example, having an unlikely type of protagonist in a familiar type of story or writing something that simultaneously attracts and repulses the audience.

A good example of the latter is probably a modern horror novel by Nick Cutter called “The Deep” which is filled with the kind of disturbing psychological horror that will probably make you too scared to read more, but you’ll probably keep reading because you want to know what will happen and more importantly why.

A more subtle example of this technique can be found in a 1980s horror novel called “The Hunger” by Whitley Strieber. In addition to presenting vampires in a way that is closer to modern crime/serial killer stories than the gothic tales of old, the novel also focuses heavily on the main vampire’s tragic backstory. This makes the reader feel sympathy towards her, whilst also being repulsed at her cruelty and general villainy. It’s a surprisingly effective narrative technique.

Another reason why contrast is such an effective thing in fiction is because it stands out from the crowd. Not only are good uses of contrast extremely memorable, but they also tap into the basis for pretty much every form of creativity out there – namely “what if I mix these two things?“. Given that originality comes from having an unexpected mixture of influences, contrast subtly reminds the audience of this fact and results in things that can easily become “cult classics”.

For example, the classic sci-fi movie “Blade Runner” is such an influential masterpiece because it contrasts 1930s-50s style “film noir” with futuristic neon-drenched sci-fi. Likewise, the early 2000s computer game “American McGee’s Alice” is such a cult classic because of the way it contrasts the whimsical innocence of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland” with something much darker and more gothic.

So, contrast can be used to create new emotions in the reader and to make your story seem more original. Although learning how to do this well is something that you’ll probably only pick up through research and experimentation, it is something that is well worth looking into because – when done well – it can really improve your story.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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