How do you make a suspense novel more suspenseful? A romance novel more romancing? A horror more horrific? Scene contrast allows a writer to manipulate change so that the reader feels what you want them to feel. I previously discussed a great way to emotionally engage your reader and the post generated quite a few replies on twitter, asking for further discussion. Scene contrast improves your readers emotional engagement with your story, and here, I break down scene contrast into a straight forward cut-and-paste framework.
This is a three scene template. Your target scene is Scene #2. The scene that comes before and after, will be scene #1 and #3 respectively. Say you want a scene to be as quiet and abandoned as possible so that your hero can be alone with their thoughts. You don’t tell the reader that scene #2 is quiet, you show them it is quiet by having scene #1 and #3 appear more busy, crowded, and as noisy as possible. Hence, you have your scene contrast. It works much like a sandwich.
When the reader reads this on a conscious level, they don’t notice that your target scene is quieter. However, they can feel that it is quieter, within their subconscious. They experience the quiet with great effect and this creates better fiction, for you are able to show that the scene is quieter, without actually telling it.
As I mentioned before, if you are writing an action thriller, and you make all your scenes action packed, sooner or later the reader will become bored, and switch off. This is becasue there is no contrast between the flow of emotional impulse. If there is no emotional contrast between loud-quiet, or happiness-sadness, then your reader, through linear time, will only be exposed to one emotional state. Hence, the impulse will become a linear plateau, and this creates boredom.
What you should do instead is have your target scene action packed, and sandwich this between two scenes that are, by contrast, quite quiet. This will manipulate the emotional engagement you want your reader to experience.
As you write, ask yourself:
- What do I want from my target scene?
- What scene comes before and after this one?
- How can I make scene 1 and 3 contrast vividly with my target scene (scene 2)?
In my horror novel, Fermanagh Exorcism, I made my target scene as horrific as possible. The scene before and after were quite quiet and dialogue driven. The contrast allowed me to jar the readers mind so that I could create a more vivid experience, thus increasing the reader’s emotional engagement in my story.
To take your story as a whole, when your character discovers the holy grail, or has their heart broken, ask yourself where you can go in previous scenes to provide contrast in order to enhance the feeling of loss or success. To really tease it out, it is sometimes better to employ scene contrast in your second draft as you write your story backwards. This is because with your first draft, you have everything nailed down loosely, and you can refine the process in your second draft. This also improves the pace of your story.
You will have lots of fun with scene contrast if you think creatively. When it comes to scene contrast, there is no right answer, rather you have an opportunity where you can think creatively and create more possibilities for contrast. If your hero wins at the end, you should manipulate scenes beforehand and create a complete sense of loss and frustration. With creating deficit, by contrast, the gains feel bigger.
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Remember: From a writer’s perspective, great story telling is about creating convincing wins and losses for your heroes and villains. Hence when a character wins something, you need to make sure the reader feels the sense of achievement. The same is for loss and failure.
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