Increase the Drama with Contrasts


yin_yang-svgAs a kid, I collected comic books. I can’t count how many had covers that boasted, in exploding fonts, a collision of “Fire vs. Water!” or “Muscle vs. Metal!” Why were these contrasts of force so common? Because they’re easy and surely the writers were deadline-driven. But beyond that, these couplings are rich with conflict. Each side is an intrinsic obstacle to the other.

Compelling drama exists in the friction between two fundamentally opposed things. Contrasting things. Let’s say: Fire’s ambition is to exist. Water also strives to exist. Each element’s most basic goal–to live–jeopardizes the other’s. If Fire is strong enough, water evaporates. If Water overpowers, fire will cease. Is this too simplistic for you? Fair enough. But note this: By creating characters who are as opposite as fire and water, you won’t struggle to find drama–you’ll only need to conjure scenarios in which the actors collide. I welcome anything that makes my work easier.

George Saunders said something along the lines of (I don’t recall the exact episode of Bookworm, but click the link and see): Pair a miserable character up with one who’s having the best day ever and sparks will fly.

We like that idea, yes? Here are some contrasting character examples that come to mind:

  • A REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER wins the biggest contract of his life–a project to develop on land that is sacred to a NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBE. . . . If I were exploring this idea, I’d dig into what LAND and FAITH meant to each side. At first glance, the set-up seems hackneyed, but timely, considering what’s happening in North Dakota.
  • A STRIP-CLUB OWNER locks horns with the LOCAL PRIEST. . . . Okay, for the love of God avoid this combination with a ten foot stripper-pole.
  • On an intercontinental flight, a MILITANT BLACK MAN is seated beside A MILITANT WHITE. . . . Another stinker, mainly due to the obvious pitfalls and cliches. Stereotypes would surely abound, as would a sappy resolution where each character has a “Golly, I never considered that perspective” moment.
  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY and GORE VIDAL find themselves sitting across from each other at a table in the Purgatory Cafe. . . . A-ha! Now, this has potential to be a satisfying story. . . .

EXERCISE 1: Are you stuck, trying to write a story that feels flat and directionless? Odds are good that you haven’t given your characters enough conflicting contrasts. On a scrap paper–though, really, your entire first draft is scrap paper, but I digress–make a list of each character’s most significant virtues, morals, ambitions, hobbies, etc. Then, compare the characters’ lists and find which qualities most contradict. Now return to your story and resume writing, drawing attention to those contrasts. You should start to see some sparks.

EXERCISE 2: Conceive a simple story idea. Whatever comes to mind. Maybe you envision a tale about GRANDMA and GRANDDAUGHTER on a cross-country drive. That’s nice. It’s not dramatic.

Now think of how to inject some juice into the scenario. What if GRANDMA is an old-school bra-burner and associate of the Weather Underground; and GRANDDAUGHTER worships Ann Coulter? Instantly, there’s a whole field of deep topics to explore. Now you just need to let your characters talk.

Be honest. You might have enjoyed reading what you’d write for the first version of My Road Trip with Granny, but few others would. If you seek to thrill a reader, or to make an editor say, “Dammit, this story has to be in our next issue,” then you’d better write the juiced-up version.

So, that’s your assignment. Create two simple characters, then find ways to boost the dramatic tension with CONTRASTS. Finally, write a page or two of these characters in a scenario from which they can’t easily extricate themselves. (Hitchcock’s Lifeboat springs to mind.) My suspicion is, once they start jawing at each other, you’ll keep going until you see who’s the victor. You might even find yourself with a cool short story in your hot little hands. (I’ll accept 10% of your royalties via PayPal, thanks.)

Okay, get back to work. Good luck to you. Post comments, other ideas, or the results of your exercise in the reply section below.

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