That title might sound like its sailing a little close to clickbait territory, but that’s honestly what I felt when I thought of this the other night. And I’ll put you straight out of your misery, the secret is contrast. Still interested? Read on. Its probably fairly obvious I like contrast.
And in everything I love contrast..
Really not sure there was much point in quoting myself, I just kinda like it. Makes me feel important.
Anyway, contrast is something I’ve spent my entire life liking but not really thinking much about.. Then during my nightly sojourns through the interwebs I stumbled on an article about contrast in music. As a designer in my fleshy form – em, flesh form – I know that artists are taught contrast as a matter of course. The music field seems fairly clued in as well, and science seems to share that interest. Studies at British Columbia have looked at what creates the strong emotional reaction we often feel when listening to music and found that all the songs that elicited the strongest emotions contained dramatic variations in the harmony, melody and rhythm.
Contrast creates emotion.
Writers – we of the Unpublished, Unloved and Unknown Affiliations – often asks, what is it that makes a book a success? Sometimes we ask with bitterness or confusion, lately perhaps more than usual. When you slave over dangling participles and are beaten senseless with adverb admonitions, when clichés keep you up weeping into the wee hours, a woman who strolls along and earns enough to buy her own island with prose such as:
And from a very tiny, underused part of my brain – probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells – comes the thought: He’s here to see you ~ EL James
Irks a touch..
Taking hype, marketing budgets and sex (sorta) out of the equation there is one element common to all. They produce strong emotional reactions. Sometimes this works against you, but even being hated is a step above being forgotten, if success is your aim. And as in music I believe that much of what we respond to in writing can be boiled down to contrast. Even in the above sentence, the out-of-place-ness of the reference so common in her prose, might well be the factor that worked to set her apart form all the other fan fics.
In some books the emotional investment is 90% reader and 10% author. They seem to trade on a hook, that thing so actively sought and yet so derided in writing circles. And so well named. I do love words that put in 110%..
The hook has nothing to do with your prose or grammar. Before you open a page you have the tagline, the blurb, the elevator pitch, those oh so important first three seconds to impress and lure in the average reader and jaded agent, to make your story STAND OUT amongst all the others casting their lines.
Think of some of the most famous taglines in modern filmmaking. Including the most famous of all, that was never actually used.
Alien: Jaws in Space..
I am Legend: the last man on earth is not alone.
The 40 year old virgin: the longer you wait, the harder it gets.
Psycho: the classic tale about a boy and his mother
Consider the most iconic stories within popular culture
Superman: the geek/god duality that is virtually a staple in all comic book heroes.
Robin Hood: Robs the rich to feed the poor.
Beauty and the Beast: well they just put it in the title.
Lord of the Rings: a short hairy-toed fellow battles an immortal evil.
Pretty much the only mention I can find of contrast in literature, as it is largely considered a linguistic concept, is buried under dry technical names such as oxymoron, parallelism, paradox, anastrophe. These are all forms of Contrast, yet taken as a larger concept at work within your writing I can find no mention of it. Contrast works through every layer of your story, embedded in theme, character, world, emotional conflict. In fact one might consider it the parent of well-considered narrative elements such as tension and conflict and understanding contrast enables us to better bring both of those elements out.
Consider what creates tension in the genre Horror, where it is the defining effect. It lies within the potentiality of the unexpected; the slow exploration of the dark deserted school, juxtaposed with the sudden jumping out of the ghost/irritating first-to-die joker..
One of the articles I came across discussing it within music recognised the part it plays in the beginning composers frustrations.
It’s a basic truth of life that people tend to lose interest when the same thing is repeated over and over again ~ Jai Josephs.
Before you even put pen to paper, or chew the lid considering that perfect opening line, contrast is at play. I’ve spoken before about riding the wave and we’ve all witnessed that in recent upcroppings of new genres. One dystopia is a big hit, and everyone wants the next one on their list. But even here, there is a distinction. Writing the next The Hunger Games usually requires writing something that isn’t like The Hunger Games. You need to observe the form while presenting enough variation to make it seem fresh. Divergent, The Maze Runner, Breathe, Uglies. Each is constructed on similar tropes – teenage chosen one, trials, rite of passage, enforced world order, but each presents a central hook that is unique to their series.
Although even here the repetitious nature of the first hook – dystopia – seems to be enough to diminish the overall effect. The Hunger Games Series outsold the next big seller Divergent, 50 million to 20 million. And neither are remotely close to the book that kick started it all: Harry Potter.
If any book could be said to have rejuvenated reading and writing in the western – actually probably just the world full stop – it would be Harry Potter. It’s a phenomenon that people are at a loss to explain. A kids book which is often derided for the quality of its prose, mostly by those who forget it’s a kids book, it sits atop every bestseller list you can think of. The first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone sold 107 million copies, the series as a whole 450 million and that doesn’t include the number of library copies, school copies or how many different members of the same family shared the one copy. Its appeal seems truly universal and few seem to know why.
You will commonly hear such reasons as ‘ the orphan boy makes good’ trope or good battles evil. A writer I know believes it is the appeal of the boarding school, and they are popular in children’s literature, offering an opportunity for redefining an entire world in a child centric manner and allowing adventure unencumbered by the reality of parents. Who hasn’t dreamed of midnight feasts?
But the refutation is present in their arguments: these are common tropes. Why hasn’t every book that used them experienced the same success? I genuinely believe that the answer is contrast. Harry Potter is built on contrast, on every layer, in every trope. Including the unwanted orphan neglected under the stairs who becomes the most important figure in the battle to save the world.
Rowling doesn’t just lay it out in the big picture she uses it in every scene. In all of the books Harry goes from hero of the Wizarding world, to unwanted nephew under the stairs. But I believe it is the inherent duality of her world and her painstaking attention to detailing this, that really paid off. The contrast she sets up is fantastical otherworld hidden within our own. Magic is embedded in the ordinary world, and as befits contrast, always in the most ordinary places. You want to catch a train to a castle where magic is taught, you don’t visit a mystical portal, a beautiful remote or sacred place, you go to the train station. Plain old London Kings Cross. It is the contrast of the mundane and the magic, the mundanity of the magic, the magic within the mundane, the skilfully layered contrasts at work that hooked us all.
Why does contrast elicit emotional reactions? How might even be the better question. Understanding how your contrasting elements are working on each other, what they bring out, is the key to understanding and yielding their power. In the case of Harry Potter it was about making the unreal real, allowing the reader to suspend their disbelief effortlessly. The top selling books all tend to fall within certain genres : fantasy and adventure of some variation. We have very little interest in reading about our ordinary lives, yet we still want to connect to what is going on, to believe in it. Grounding the fantastical in the everyday is actually part of a recognised truism of writing:
The more fantastical your story the more ordinary your language should be ~ Writing Advice, The Internet and Everybody Else..
Yet it goes further than simply eschewing fancy metaphors, and while most writers are fairly at ease with that, they tend to get so caught up in their wonderful new world that they lose sight of the real one. How many times do we sci-fi lovers encounter the complaint: No more Vargas of Zexus Prime, Overlord of the Dixonius Hooverus System, please. Take a look at Dune, one of the most successful science fiction books of all time, all about a boy named Paul. Or The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and Arthur Dents adventures across space in a robe, not handstitched by the one eyed eight fingered nuns of Araxus Weetabixus but probably bought in M&S. He always struck me as the M&S type.
It goes further. Something again art is up on. The ordinary setting is the ideal way to highlight the wonder, the power, the sheer fantasy at work.
There is no colour wheel in literature to allow us to easily pluck out our opposite and if you rely on concepts as vague as good versus evil you’re going to be lost amongst all the other generic clichés. As with all things it’s the specific details that you have to zero in on and understand. The Hunger Games, a book it hurts me to praise, used a fairly generic good versus evil concept – battle to the death – a familiar trope to fantasy and sci-fi readers, and chose three elements to contrast.
The first: the battle was entertainment. Not the newest; from the Roman gladiators that we were all taught about in childhood to the Running Man, to ThunderDome, death as entertainment is however still evocative enough to be popular although it needs a twist to make it really stand out.
Two: it was forced. This wasn’t a choice for our heroine or indeed any of the other tributes. Even the careers, entry was mandatory for all districts, one of them had to risk their lives. Again not the freshest, but it does add a poignant contrast to the entertainment element.
Third: they were children. This is why I hate the book to some extent, but I think its also fair to say its this last twist, the innocence of the victims, the fighters we were rooting for and the ones we were rooting against, that really made it stand out. And Suzanne Collins does seem to play on this constantly. Rather than make her tributes all of a similar age – 16/18 – she ups the innocence factor with characters such as Rue, a wide eyed, underfed child who hasn’t even had her 13th birthday yet. And perhaps one of the reasons that the subsequent books suffered from diminishing sales and interest lies with the loss of this contrast. The second Games are held with more equal contestants, all of whom are now adult and have already battled and won previously. By the third we have battled hardened warriors, survivors of civil war, even her sister, the innocence she volunteered to protect, has grown, developing skills that make her a valuable member of the resistance. Battle Royale which she has frequently been compared to shared both these second elements, although the idea of entertainment, was left out. Perhaps crucially.
Many of the more obvious, blunt contrasts have become tropes – or clichés depending on your perspective – and writers continue to tap into them and in some genres, perhaps more in the age of free kindle books, this pays enough. Can you imagine a romance without a love/hate relationship? Form the Prince and the Showgirl, to Horny Harry and fastidious Sally, the inherent opposite ness of the lovers or their love, as in Romeo and Juliet, is what pulls the readers in. Virgins and playboys probably top the list of the overdone.. yet they still sell. For 99p. I’m not putting them down. If I could I’d be writing these..and if you are trust me, contrast is your way to Superyachts.com Gold Club membership.
For my own part I am drawn to the more subtle contrasts, the small surprising variations, but all of them even these can be boiled down to one form: they clash with our expectations. When we expect to go left, they go right. To make it work for you, on any scale in any part of your writing, you need to defy convention. If you are finding, like those beginning composers, that you keep getting overlooked on amazon or by the agents, its definitely worth looking at your contrast, in your story, in your hook, in your prose. And the better you understand the form, the better able you are to subvert it.