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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Settings And Contrasts In Stories And Comics

2015 Artwork Settings contrast article sketch

When it comes to writing interesting stories and/or making interesting comics, one thing that can often be overlooked is the contrast between the different settings in your story.

You’d be surprised at how much more interesting, dramatic, fascinating, memorable and/or atmospheric a story can be if there is a large enough amount of contrast between the various locations within it.

When I’m talking about contrast, I’m not talking about just making sure that all of your settings look different from each other (although this can work, especially in comics), I’m talking about all sorts of other things too.

I’m talking about things like the atmosphere of a particular setting, the history/ culture of it, the attitudes of the people who spend a lot of time there etc… I’m sure you get the idea.

There are several reasons why making sure that there’s a large amount of contrast between the settings in your story is a good idea. The first is that it it adds a lot more variety to your story and, well, having a large amount of variety in your story is one of the easiest ways to stop your readers from getting bored.

But, the most important reason to keep a decent amount of contrast between the settings in your story is because it can be used for emphasis. What do I mean by this? Well, things tend to stand out a lot more when they’re next to something totally different. For example, a small green LED light might not be that noticeable in the middle of a bright LED display, but it will probably be a lot more noticeable if it’s in the middle of a dark room.

So, if you want to emphasise the fact that one of your settings is a good place, a bad place, a strange place, a boring place etc… then one of the easiest and most effective ways to do this is to include another setting which is pretty much the complete opposite of your original setting.

In case you’re puzzled by all of this, I thought that I’d give you a few examples of what I’m talking about. One good example of a series of novels with a high amount of contrast between the settings in them are Clive Barker’s “Abarat” novels.

Although it’s been a few years since I read these novels, they mostly take place on a mysterious group of twenty-five islands, each of which represents one hour of the day (including a mysterious twenty-fifth hour).

Needless to say, each of these islands is startlingly different from the others and this means that, not only are the islands that you do get to see really interesting – you’re also a lot more curious about the islands that you don’t get to see. Why? Because you know that they will be totally different from the islands that you’ve already seen.

A good televised example of this can also be found in an old TV series from the 1990s called “Babylon 5” . This is a show that is set aboard a neutral space station where diplomats from various planets can meet to talk. Trust me, it’s a lot more interesting than I’ve made it sound.

Anyway, as the show goes on, it’s quite interesting to see that – despite whatever terrible things happen on other planets – the space station is almost always a safe haven for democracy, freedom, understanding etc….

But, if it wasn’t for terrible things happening on other planets, then the space station would probably be something of a boring choice of setting for a sci-fi show. But, because there’s such a huge contrast between the station and various other parts of the universe, it’s a far more interesting location than it should be.

Of course, this technique only really works with longer stories and comics. However, there’s no rule stating that you can’t use it in shorter stories and comics too – although obviously you’ll probably have to scale everything down slightly (eg: you could write a story about an interesting pub in the middle of a boring city centre etc…).

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One Quick Trick For Making Your Art Look Vivid

2014 Artwork Vivid pictures article sketch

As regular readers of this blog and/or viewers of my DeviantART gallery probably know, my art tends to have a fairly distinctive “vivid” look to it. Although I’ve briefly explained how I make my art look like this a few times before, I thought that I’d look at it in slightly more depth in this article.

Before we begin, I should point out that this technique only works for scanned and/or digitally photographed art. As such, you’ll need a graphics editing program of some kind or another. If you don’t have one, then there’s a fairly good free open source program called “GIMP” that can be downloaded here.

Anyway, after I scan my drawings and paintings, they generally tend to look slightly “faded” and kind of (for want of a better description) flat and lifeless. They don’t really stand out or jump out at you. They’re just ordinary, boring and inoffensive.

To show you what I mean, here’s a direct scan of two drawings I made in 2010:

"Azure Plaza And Aces" By C. A. Brown [27th December 2010]

“Azure Plaza And Aces” By C. A. Brown [27th December 2010]

Now, here’s one of my more recent paintings from a few weeks ago – as you can probably see, the whole picture stands out a lot more:

"Mother Ivey's Bay" By C. A. Brown

“Mother Ivey’s Bay” By C. A. Brown

So, how do I do this?

Simple. I just adjust the brightness and contrast levels of the picture digitally after I’ve scanned it.

It can take a bit of experimentation to get the levels right, but I generally keep the contrast level fairly high (eg: 60-70) and keep the brightness level fairly low (eg: -20 to -60). Seriously, you’d be surprised at what a difference this can make to your picture.

Since “brightness/contrast” is a fairly basic thing to adjust, almost all graphics editing programs will usually have an option that allows you to adjust them.

Yes, it doesn’t matter if you are using an antique version of Paint Shop Pro from the 1990s (like I do) or whether you’re using the latest version of Photoshop, this option will be there somewhere.

For example, if you’re using “GIMP“, then the “brightness/contrast” option can be found in the “colours” menu at the top of the screen:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE]

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE]

Anyway, once you’ve found it, just lower the brightness slightly and raise the contrast and your picture will instantly look a lot more vivid and interesting.

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Sorry for the astonishingly short article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂