Well, I felt like writing about storytelling again. This is mostly because both the last novel I read (“Grave Importance” by Vivian Shaw) before taking another break from books and the old computer game I’m playing at the time of writing (“The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind”) both handle contrast and progression in a similar way.
In other words, they don’t really start feeling truly epic until you’ve sunk quite a few hours into them. In order to increase the dramatic value of their best parts, they deliberately make everything a bit weaker, slower and/or smaller-scale in the earlier parts. This helps to stop the audience from becoming jaded and also gives their best parts an increased level of dramatic weight too – since they stand out more in comparison to everything that the audience has previously experienced.
Another way to think of this is that contrast is like lighting in a painting. If you want to make something in a painting look seriously light or dark, then that part of the painting should be the only place where you use pure black or white – everything else should be a slightly lighter or darker shade of another colour. Since you can’t get lighter or darker than those two colours, you need to use them sparingly if you want them to really stand out against the rest of the painting.
On a side-note, this is why a lot of “spectacular” modern CGI-filled blockbuster films really don’t feel that spectacular – despite featuring special effects that would have been almost impossible a decade or two ago. Because they overload the audience with these effects and keep using them at almost every possible opportunity – lest the audience get “bored” – they just quickly end up becoming an “ordinary” part of the film and don’t really carry much dramatic weight.
But, in order for the audience to feel truly amazed, they need to feel “bored” for a while. The gap between “This is a bit dull” and “Oh wow! That’s really cool!” is much larger than the gap between “This is cool” and “This is cool too”. Dramatic weight and dramatic impact relies on this gap.
A good literary example of this (SPOILERS ahoy! Seriously, this scene is best read unspoiled!) can be found in Walter M. Miller’s 1959 sci-fi novel “A Canticle For Liebowitz“.
The earlier parts of the novel are a very slow-paced and small-scale story about the everyday lives of a group of monks who live in a post-apocalyptic desert and meticulously archive the remnants of pre-apocalypse society. It seems like “science fiction” only in the sense that it is technically set in the future. This aside, it could almost be a work of historical fiction.
But about halfway through the novel you learn that, from the old documents they have discovered, some of the monks have worked out how to build a large and primitive arc lamp. Then they eventually test it out. This scene is one of the most spectacular, epic and memorable ones you’ll ever read. As the monks leap around to crank the machinery, they recite the opening passages of the book of Genesis in Latin – ending with the phrase “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be light”) just as the arc lamp sputters into life and bathes the room with bright light.
Most Hollywood blockbuster films can’t reach the level of spectacular “WOW!!” astonishment that this one scene in a book from the 1950s does when you’re actually reading it. This novel is able to make a piece of technology that would be considered laughably obsolete by the standards of ordinary fiction, let alone science fiction, feel stunningly futuristic and spectacular. It is a scene that you’ll never forget if you read it in context. And it works so well because of contrast. Whether it is the fact that this is the first piece of working electrical equipment that appears in the novel or even the fact that it is the first spectacular moment after quite a few pages of slow-paced, small-scale storytelling, it only “works” in comparison to everything that has come before it. Again, the audience needs to feel “bored” before they can feel “amazed”.
But, and this is the really important part, how do you keep the audience interested during these important “boring” parts?
There are several ways of doing this. The most obvious is to give the audience a small hint that amazing stuff will happen if they keep going – but this also runs the risk of ruining the surprise for the audience. So, the best ways of handling it usually involve giving the audience something else that is just about interesting enough to keep them going until they reach the really good bits.
This usually has to be something relatively subtle – but good – if you really want to keep your audience around for long enough to astonish them later. For example, Miller’s “A Canticle For Liebowitz” relies on a both a timelessly quirky sense of humour and an intriguing setting to keep everything interesting. Shaw’s “Grave Importance” relies on a few great character moments, a smaller-scale mystery, a good writing style and the fact that most readers have read the previous books in the series (and know how good the series can be) to keep the reader interested until the spectacular parts.
With a game like “Morrowind”, the earlier parts are kept interesting in two main ways. The first is that you are plonked into a large open world that very quickly begins to look intriguingly different from a typical medieval fantasy world:
Secondly, “Morrowind” also uses genre to keep the audience interested too. During the earlier parts of the game, walking anywhere outside of a town (which you’ll have to do for several early quests) turns the game into an absolutely terrifying survival horror game – because not only is your weak, slow and almost-defenceless early character easy prey for the local wildlife but, like in some of the early “Silent Hill” horror games, the background music suddenly turns ominous whenever something is nearby.
These parts of the game are genuinely scary! But, not only does this tense and suspenseful feeling of fear make these segments feel more interesting than the long walks you’d find in a typical open-world fantasy game, but it also subtly hints to the player that, one day, they won’t have to feel afraid. That, if they keep playing the game and become more powerful, then the “ominous” background music will evoke feelings of excitement (eg: a thrilling battle that they stand a good chance of winning) rather than abject dread.
So, yes, there are lots of creative and subtle ways to keep the “boring” earlier parts of something interesting. But, yes, your story needs to have “boring” parts if you want the “spectacular” parts to really stand out.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂