Sunday, August 15, 2010

Contrasts and juxtaposition

On a mini-retreat with Denny, which means we go to the pool to do our brainstorming. :) The only way to keep up with the heat! Of our brainstorming, I mean.

Anyway, Denny mentioned how she's using "comparison and contrast" in her plotting and scenes, and that got me thinking. I think of popular fiction as a type of folk art (like folk music), building on a long tradition, with old practitioners teaching new respect for the tradition, and the new ones innovating in often subtle ways while maintaining the traditions. Well, one advantage this gives pop fic writers is that we can count on readers to know the traditions about as well as we do, and that gives us an additional layer to build on: What is expected.

We pop fic writers can play on the traditions, tease reader expectation, present the expected and then withdraw it and replace it with something new. The "something new" is more fun, more surprising, more meaningful, balanced on the familiar and expected. That is, we get double here-- the reader is set up for the familiar, kind of writes the familiar story in her mind, and so has that done when the writer presents something contrasting, something unexpected.

A minor example-- but you'll see this in many adeptly written genre stories-- Dahl's Crazy for Love presents the usual hero-desire, to have sex, of course. The reader will expect, when the hero goes with the heroine on a late-night swim in the sea, that he will try to "get a leg over," as the Brits used to say. After all, he's macho and vital and full of Y chromosome. But Dahl sets this up only to replace it with something more fun and more individual. Yes, he's macho, and sure, he wants to do some smooching (and more). But what makes him different than most heroes in that situation? He's a control freak, a protector, and as much as he wants to make love, he wants more to get her out of the dangerous night sea, where sharks and riptides lurk. The heroine figures it out: "You're going to make out with me just to keep me from swimming!"

That's in the first act. His protectiveness, in fact, becomes a conflict in the second act. And in the last lines of the book, he's about to kiss her on a balcony, very romantic. But surreptitiously, he edges her away from the railing, just in case.

See how the expectation is set up-- heroes always are ready willing and able for sex, at least with the heroine. But then a more individualized aspect is introduced as a supplement (if not a replacement), and what happens? The issue is raised subtextually-- what makes a hero heroic? It's not just awesome sexual stamina. (Heck, they all have that. :) It's protectiveness. It's caring. It's making people safe. (That's why, btw, the author comes back to this in the end-- to show that no matter how much fun we might make of his protectiveness, he's never going to lose it... and we don't want him to.)

The juxtaposition of the expected with the unexpected, the familiar with the surprise, that's what deepens the experience for the reader and produces those subtextual issues. Layers of meaning:
1) There's all the meaning that has built up in centuries of this traditional expectation within the genre or folk culture. Consider what those meanings are-- what this, whatever it is, indicates about the character(s), what it means about the world of the story, what other stories it refers to, what it has always made readers think... Any genre expectation, btw, tends to be responding to or amplifying some common deep inner need within humans (like the sudden appearance of the monster in horror is an attempt to play off the inner fear of the unknown, but also the inner need to seek comfort). That is the "universal" that gets juxtaposed against the surprise. But that universal, traditional meaning is all-important, so writers should set up the expectation of it in the reader-- the reader will do the rest.

2) There's the meaning of the unfamiliar too, whatever happens instead of (or in addition to) the expected. There's some reason why you the writer have gone in this new direction, maybe the individuality of the character, or the setup for an event that isn't produced by the familiar. But that will produce its own meaning, and it will be enhanced by the contrast with the familiar. In the Dahl book, for example, the hero considers his need to protect as "freakish," as something a little wrong with him, simply because it's not the usual "me want sex" caveman thing. That kind of contrast will immediately individualize the book and the characters, and give the reader something to do (contrasting the two).

3) Then the actual juxtaposition itself has meaning. Putting the familiar up against the unfamiliar, forcing that comparison (what's similar) and contrast (what is different), will produce questions, like "what's different? why is it different? how did that happen? which is better?" And those questions will produce another layer of meaning, the conclusions the reader draws from asking.

Notice that these three break rather neatly into a traditional 3-act structure! The first sets up the familiar. The second act undercuts that and creates and increases conflict by adding the unfamiliar. The third act resolves the conflict with the synthesis of the two-- both are important, and both together create a new meaning.

Also this draws the reader in and makes him interact with the story. The reader has to participate in the setup of the familiar (reader expectation requires the reader :), by recognizing the familiar and all its implications (especially the tradition that created the familiarity). Then the reader has to recognize that the surprise is something new and respond to that. (This is sort of a gift to the experienced reader. A new reader might not know the tradition and thus won't get when it's supplemented. That doesn't mean the new reader won't enjoy the book, only that this strategy can give additional pleasure to the experienced reader.)
Finally, the reader will be led to ask questions and raise issues and think through to a new meaning.

Interactivity means reader involvement, which is always good.

So that's one way to use comparison/contrast in a story-- familiar/unfamiliar.

Any examples you can think of?



Wes said...

My head hurts. There's a lot to think about here.

Donna Coe-Velleman said...

I'm with Wes here, there's a lot to think about but I think I get it.

I also agree with you about what makes a hero heroic. Even if he's a bad boy and it only shows once in a while, he's got to have those qualities within him.

Denny S. Bryce said...

Thank you for this post, Alicia. It reminded me of our pool-side (and continued conversation) chat about compare and contrast. Your post dived deeper than I believe we ventured, but I think it's a tool that many writers use unconsciously. Whedon (yes, Joss) used this consistently during the BtVS/Angel days. He liked to employ it I believe mostly with his villains. Contrasting Buffy and Angel to Spike and Drusilla, Xander and Faith, Xander and Anya - etc. But my favorite is and Angel/Angelus. Constructing good from evil and debating where one leaves off and the other begins was masterful (IMHO). My favorite episode, Amends, Season 3 BtVS, tackles this head on. Whedon even made the remark that the episode included his 'best'/favorite line he ever wrote. "It's not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy. It's the man." compare/contrast. Examples in literature are plenty...Scarlett and Rhett, Ashley and Melanie, Melanie and Scarlett, and Rhett and Ashley...

Edittorrent said...

Denny, I do think that it makes for a more dramatic scene....