As writers, we’re all aware of the importance of conflict, plot, character and voice, but I want to talk about another element that can ratchet up the intensity of a story: contrast.
In painting, contrast is an essential tool for adding punch and drama. Painters use dark and dull complementary colors to make the bright touches sing, and light to give the darkness depth. The same principle applies to stories.
For example, In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the brutality and desperation of the game itself wouldn’t have had nearly the emotional impact if it hadn’t been such a contrast to the glamour and opulence the tributes were exposed to before the games started. Same thing with the poverty of district 13 versus the decadence of the capital, the contrast between the two upped the impact of both.
In Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, Park’s loving family makes Eleanor’s dangerously dysfunctional one feel like a punch to the reader’s gut. If Park’s family had been horrible, Eleanor’s plight might have felt a little blasé.
In those examples, the contrasts between the protagonist’s situation and those of other characters upped the emotional impact of the story. That’s one way to use contrast in a story: take whatever issue is central to your protagonist’s problem and contrast it with other character’s situations.
Let’s say your protagonist has to draw the household’s water from a community well and haul it a mile, on foot, every day. You might contrast her with characters who think nothing of indoor plumbing and take automatic sprinklers for granted. If your protagonist is dying, you might want to include major characters who are busy planning for their bright and beautiful futures.
A writer can also make an individual character more compelling by giving that character contrasting traits. A great example is Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Because Lecture was so polite and cultured on the surface, his brutal madness—when we saw flashes of it—packed far more punch than it would have if he’d been raving like a rabid dog all along.
Great writers also use contrast to punch up the impact of individual moments and scenes. That’s often accomplished by using language that contrasts with the actions the prose are describing. Writing a funny scene in a very matter-of-fact way, a la Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, ratchets up the scene’s absurdity quotient.
A casual or matter-of-fact delivery can also intensify grisly or violent scenes. M. R. Carey uses voice/content contrast to chilling effect throughout The Girl with all the Gifts. It’s one of the many reasons I love that book. There’s a scene early on where Dr. Caldwell is removing a child’s brain which Carey could have written with horror movie malevolence, but instead, his clinical narrative makes the scene horrific on a whole other scale.
So, when you want to grab the reader by the emotions and up the drama, try adding a liberal helping of contrast: between circumstances, character traits (between characters and/or within an individual character) and between the prose you use and the content those prose describe.