What is meant by contrasting description?
In this context, contrast is all about complimenting the underlying story with different, opposing aspects. It’s a literary device that provides the light and dark shades to description, but one that is rarely thought about.
Contrasting description isn’t just about being vivid in order to draw in the reader. It creates a different tone and atmosphere by allowing the reader to imagine those subtle differences and therefore hold their attention. It is also a way of uniting two separate concepts, for instance if the writer describes abject stillness contrasted with lots of movement, or utter silence contrasted with overbearing noise. These are interesting contrasts that can be layered within the main description, for example:
When the din finally stopped, when it seemed all had stopped, a strange kind of hush crept in, like a fine mist, and rendered the muddy, bloody landscape in a silence that he felt all too deafening, and for a moment he held his hands to his ears to shut out the screams in his head...
The contrast here lies in the way the quietness of the scene creeps in, (following the noise of a battle), to the character trying to diminish the screams that can only be heard by him, despite the silence around him. This allows the reader to see through the main description to the emotion hidden beneath; that this man is emotionally distraught.
In this second example, the contrast uses colour as concepts layered within the description, rather sounds or perceptions:
Dmitry should have been appalled, but he wasn’t, because the soldier’s death was nothing like the poppy red puddles he’d seen glistening on pristine snow, spewed from his mother in her last moments, but instead the soldier’s blue-eyed expression remained unmoved the snow unsullied, despite the blade sticking out of his chest...
Here, the character, Dmitry, feels disappointed that the soldier’s death is nothing like his mother’s death, and it uses the distinction of ‘poppy red’ puddles on ‘pristine snow’ to separate the ‘unmoved’ and ‘unsullied’ death by contrast, and it achieves that by neatly weaving these two concepts within the description. It makes it more interesting for the reader, and really focuses their attention on that moment.
Sound and colour are just two ideas that are often contrasted. Dickens contrasted best and worst of times, and wisdom and foolishness in the opener to A Tale of Two Cities. It’s subtle – a blink and you’ll miss it moment – but it’s still contrast nevertheless. Shakespeare uses contrast in almost all of his work. The most used example is Sonnet 130, where he contrasts the features of a mistress – her eyes are nothing like the sun, lips not as red as coral, her breasts are not as white as snow, and hair like wire – to show how ordinary she is by comparison to these things. As the reader, we imagine the mistress to be rather plain and unattractive.
Writers often like to contrast the weather, or light and darkness to underpin themes of good and bad. Themes and ideas can also be subject to contrast. Love and hate are universal themes, as found in Romeo and Juliet, tension and travesty are contrasted in many descriptions within To Kill A Mockingbird, but the way writers are able to contrast them within their descriptions makes all the difference to the depth and meaning of that description.
Writers can use contrast in almost anything – sound, colour, theme, sensations, perceptions, people, ideas, surroundings and emotions...things that can provide the reader with more than just pretty words, but rather something more meaningful and rich.
But what about characters?
Characters are often contrasted; however, writers should be careful not to create cliché here. The reason for this is because contrasting characters have largely been done to death – the kind of stuff usually seen in movies tends to be regurgitated in novels, for example the good cop, bad cop pairing, or the brilliant character and the stupid character who team up, or the black guy with white guy who settle their differences by working together. This is the same for pairing male and female characters or kids and adults and so on. They may not seem it, but all of these are cliché.
If you contrast characters, make them unique and different in a way rarely seen before in order to avoid the hackneyed ones we so often see. Contrasting characters doesn’t have to mean ‘opposite’, but rather it can mean ‘complimentary’. Writers just have to think differently about it.
Description is a valuable part of our writing, but sometimes we can weave different elements within it to make it more interesting and thought provoking for our readers. By creating contrasting description, we give readers more than one layer to peel back; we give them many layers to help transport them from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Next week: Making first chapters successful