Making Yellow More Yellow: The Power of Contrast
by James Thayer
Contrast means to show differences. Yellow is more yellow when placed next to blue, rather than next to white. The embroidery of Mona Lisa’s dress neckline is made more intricate and rich by being next to the evenness of her skin. In Nighthawks, Edward Hopper uses the somber, dark exterior colors to make the yellow of the café’s interior harsh and impersonal.
Writers can employ contrast in the same way. Raymond Obstfeld said, “Putting contrasting elements next to each other tends to emphasize each work; putting similar elements next to each other tends to blend them together.”
Contrast can make our fiction leap off the page. Here is where contrast is particularly useful:
Between characters: Graham Greene wrote in Ways of Escape: "The main characters in a novel must necessarily have some kinship to the author, they come out of his body as a child comes from the womb, then the umbilical cord is cut, and they grow into independence. The more the author knows of his own character the more he can distance himself from his invented characters and the more room they have to grow in.” But new writers tend to make not only the main character like themselves, but all the characters, and so they blend together.
A character’s personality, appearance, and motivation will stand out if a second character is starkly different.
The hero and the sidekick should be unlike each other. An example: in Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the Royal Navy in the time of Nelson, the first of which is Master and Commander, the protagonist is Jack Aubrey, who is tall and stout, and has a rosy, sunburned complexion. He is an expert at sea but a bumbler on land. His friend Stephen Maturin is slender and pale, with a fidgety manner. He is a surgeon and naturalist, and he is inept at sea but savvy on land. Aubrey and Maturin are different in almost all ways, and they are made vivid by the contrast with each other.
The hero and the antagonist should be different. In Oliver Twist, Dickens’ Bill Sikes is cynical, cunning, and violent. The young hero, Oliver, is loyal, honest and impressionable.
And the hero and the romantic interest should be different. In C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, the steam launch’s skipper is Charlie Allnutt, a carefree disheveled river trader who enjoys a stiff drink. He falls in love—after a fashion—with Rose Sayer, a repressed and teatotalling spinster.
This is an important writing technique: a character will be more memorable when placed next to a wildly different character.
Between scenes: An action scene will be more intense if placed next to a romantic scene, which will also make the romantic scene more romantic. A scene filled with dialogue should be placed next to one with more action or setting description. A funny scene next to a tense scene. A tearful scene next to a joyous one. A faster paced scene next to a slower paced scene. As many elements in one scene should be as different from the elements of the next scene as possible. Mix it up.
Here is how a master does it. The opening scene in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons is a drunken revelry at the exclusive Dupont University, where alcohol gales are blowing in frat boys’ heads and where “all comments seem more devastatingly funny if shouted” and the boys “kept disintegrating over one another’s wit.” There’s a fistfight, lots of vomit, and “Yo, Hoyt! ‘Sup?” dialogue. The next scene is a dignified high school graduation ceremony in a rural North Carolina town, where valedictorian Charlotte Simmons is introduced as “’a young woman who this fall will become the first graduate of Alleghany High School to attend Dupont University,’” and where “the adults in rows of folding chairs behind her murmured appreciatively.” The settings, characters, pace, and tone are markedly different in these two scenes, and both scenes are enlivened by the contrast.
Between a characters and the setting: A character’s personality can come vividly to life if she is placed in a setting that contrasts with her personality. The writer doesn’t have to tell the reader her heroine is calm if the character walks casually across a cemetery at night. A writer need not tell the reader her nurse is an optimist if the nurse is lively and grinning while at work in an oncology ward. A character who won’t smile at his daughter’s sixth birthday party is indeed dour. A character who can chat airily while on a tour of a slaughterhouse isn’t bothered by much.
Between a character and the situation. In Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins is an innkeeper’s young son. He is a dutiful and honest landlubber, and naïve in the ways of certain things, such as. . . oh . . . say, cutthroat pirates. He is thrown into an adventure on the schooner Hispaniola, with a one-legged fellow named Long John Silver who seems to be more than the cook he professes to be. Jim is entirely out of his element, and he must learn quickly about cannons and knives, a ship’s rigging, treasure caves, brandy, doubloons, betrayal and bravery.
A plot is strengthened when the protagonist isn’t suitable—at first—for the situation. One of fiction’s great rules is that a surgeon performing a tracheotomy isn’t as exciting as a nun performing a tracheotomy.
Between sentences: Sentences come in a wide variety: simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, and probably others. Writers dare not think about sentence structure too long because the subject kills brain cells. But the easiest way to use contrast in sentence structure is to vary sentence length. When short sentences follow long ones, they act as points of emphasis.
An example from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.
I was glad of it.
Here is another example, from Dean Koontz’s Velocity:
With draft beer and a smile, Ned Pearsall raised a toast to his deceased neighbor, Henry Friddle, whose death greatly pleased him.
Henry had been killed by a garden gnome. He had fallen off the roof of his two-story house, onto that cheerful-looking figure. The gnome was made of concrete. Henry wasn’t.
The short sentence acts as a rim shot, emphasizing by contrast the earlier sentences.
A lemon is sour by any measure. But swallow a teaspoon of sugar, then bite into a slice of lemon. It’ll blow your head off. The same technique can be used in writing.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com)