The title of this post refers to an old English rhyme for what brides should wear: ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue’. The rhyme itself is not meaningful for writing. However, it illustrates a need for contrast, which is important for writing.
Let me back up a bit. When creating art, be it writing, painting, music, or photography, you want contrast. Contrast is what draws the attention of the reader/listener/viewer. In painting, one of the most famous examples is the ‘Clair-obscur’, or ‘Chiaroscuro’, technique used by my countryman Rembrandt – among others. This technique aims to contrast the light and dark in a painting to highlight certain parts. If you look at Rembrandt’s paintings, you’ll see they feature dark scenes with brightly lit eye-catchers. His famous painting ‘de Nachtwacht’ (the banner of this post) features a dark scene, with a few people standing out: a man in white, with a shining sash, and a young angel-like girl.
Photography is the same. For instance, take the black-and-white picture of London below.
The bus immediately stands out, because it’s the only swath of colour in the picture. It contrasts sharply with the rest. This same effect was used in Schindler’s List, the movie.
Then there’s music; Gothic metal is an entire musical sub-genre combining the harsh guitars of metal with the melodious voices of singers.
The human mind is drawn to contrast. This applies to painting, photography and music, as described above, but also to writing. Contrast in writing takes different forms. It applies to the story level, but also to the details used in a specific scene or even sentence.
Contrast in plot, characters, and setting
Plot is always about events pushing characters. Putting contrast in the plot means looking for contrast in these inciting events. To create a character arc, you place a character in roughly the same situation multiple times, failing each time, but completing their arc when they act differently to the same event and come out on top. There’s contrast between the same events in beginning and the end.
The reverse can be done as well: having different characters react differently to the same event. This highlights the differences between those characters. Which brings us to contrast in characters.
Foil characters are a good example of contrast in characters, as are ensemble casts. Multiple characters have different strengths and weaknesses, which are highlighted because they contrast with each other. Take Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, who are complete opposites in almost every way.
A single character can similarly be made more interesting by contrasting different aspects of their personality: Sherlock Holmes for instance, is a great detective, but also a cocaine addict.
Contrast can be extended to the setting as well. You can contrast setting with characters, for instance, by having the dead body of a wealthy duchess be found in the city slums. What was she doing there? Why was she killed? Urban fantasy is built around this very concept: magical elements set against a contemporary background.
Contrast in settings also works. Do you remember the scene in the Lord of the Rings (the movie) where Gandalf is on the tower of Orthanc and a single butterfly comes to him across the burning wastes surrounding the tower? If you look at the story, you’ll notice the armies of Mordor live in ash-filled, dark abodes, while the good guys live in pretty forests. The setting mirrors the contrast between the two sides of the War of the Ring.
Contrast in the small
If you drill down to the writing itself attention can be drawn by creating a juxtaposition of contrasting sentences, or words. For example:
The raging torrent of water bore down on him, then slid aside peacefully.
In this example ‘raging’ and ‘peacefully’ are very contradictory. What is happening? Magic? Something else? The sentence immediately draws attention to itself.
You can even do this on a word level:
Just two words that normally don’t fit together, immediately making you wonder what they are doing there. That’s the power of contrast.
Contrast is a very important tool in any creative toolkit, whether you’re painting, photographing, or writing. A story without contrast is like a dish without spices, bland and forgettable.