Add Muscle to Your Fiction With Unity and Contrast

The painting technique known as chiaroscuro (which, in the words of Lemony Snicket, is a big, big word meaning, quite literally, “light-dark”) makes full use of the contrast between light and dark to pull details into sharper focus. We see the world in shades of light and dark. Without one or the other, details fade into invisibility.

Our fiction is no different. Depending on your intent in any given scene, you can apply unity and contrast to beef up your prose, pack muscle onto your descriptions, and add weight to your subtext. Let’s take a look at the finer points of each, along with tips for choosing which is appropriate for the effect you’re trying to achieve.

 

So, there you are, writing a scene about King Chiaro of planet Scuro. Only he’s not so kingly anymore. His good buddy and right-hand man staged an et tu kind of a coup, threw ol’ Chiaro right out of his palace, and is now hunting him like a dog. Nowadays, our noble but understandably glum king is hiding in alleys and eating out of dumpsters.

Unity

You could employ any number of techniques to describe poor Chiaro’s plight, one of which is “unity of effect.” Since you want readers to understand how destitute, downtrodden, and depressed Chiaro is, you can use description to highlight the grungy details of his plight. The alley is slimy and stinky. The food in the dumpsters is rat-eaten and moldy. The rain from the latest thunderstorm is so polluted it’s eating holes through the burlap sack he’s wearing instead of a shirt.

You could take this further yet and highlight unity of effect in metaphor. Maybe Chiaro huddles next to a rundown building and stares at the cloud-clogged sky, feeling as if the sun has betrayed him just as surely as his ol’ buddy Brutus.

Or maybe you’d like to drive the point home further yet through character interaction. Chiaro stumbles into the aftermath of a backstreet gang war just as one of the gang leaders is ruthlessly deposed. The parallels only strengthen the effect of Chiaro’s recent misadventures.

Contrast

But these aren’t your only choices. You can also use contrasting details to amplify Chiaro’s desperate physical and emotional dilemma. Sometimes contrast can actually provide the stronger effect, since the very act of comparison allows readers to see things in perspective.

For example, you could use contrast in your description by showing our ragged, louse-infested monarch staggering through the gold-plated streets in front of his former palace. Where once he proudly rode along in his royal rickshaw, he now leaves muddy footprints on the polished cobblestones. Sweet-smelling princesses fail to recognize him and instead turn up their pretty noses at his stink. The sharp mountain air he’s always taken for granted now makes him dread the smog of the city’s underbelly.

Your contrasting metaphors can bite with their pungent dichotomy. The shining sun—beautiful and serene—mocks his misery as it continues to bring joy to his city, as if his fall was of no importance.

You can find even more interesting fodder for contrast when you return him to the underbelly and his interaction with the other street rat characters. When he tells them who he really is, they laugh in his face. They bow and scrape and call him “Your Most Royal Majesty” as if it’s an epithet.

Suddenly, through a judicious choice of unifying and contrasting details, you’ve added some real muscle to your scene. This is no skinny runt of a story anymore; now, it’s the gold medal winner in the bodybuilding division. If you can keep these two simple techniques in mind as you write your story, its resonance will hit readers right where it counts—in the heart.

Tell me your opinion: Which do you think is more powerfulthe unity or contrast? 

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Hi K.M., You used both unity and contrast so effectively that it’s difficult for me to decide which is more powerful. In my writing, I think that I’ve tended to use unity, without really understanding my options.

    As always, I love the podcast. It adds to the enjoyment of your post.

  2. Happily, we don’t have to pick between them. We get to use them both to bring even more depth to our stories. And whenever we’re in doubt in any particular instance, all we have to do is experiment with both. Glad you enjoyed the podcast!

  3. I think both are important depending on the scene and how the writer wants the reader to feel.

  4. Yes, really, what it all comes down to is tone. Unity usually provides a gentler, more subtle effect. Contrast is more aggressive and striking.

  5. Both are useful although unity works best for me in my current WIP.

  6. It’s important to know which will be most effective in the tone you’re trying to strike. No reason most stories can’t use both. But sometimes holding predominately to one throughout, only to slam home the opposite at a key moment, can create memorably strong results.

  7. Depends on the rhetorical purpose; does the reader need to feel one particular feeling? Or do they need to feel the conflict? Contrast, by being more conflict-y, makes us dissatisfied and makes us yearn for change toward one side of the contrast; unity, by being, well, unified, makes us feel only continuity of feeling, with only a gentle hope for change.

  8. Excellent way of putting it. Conflict is the nuclear engine at the heart of the story, which perforce lends contrast a tremendous amount of power. But unity’s great strength is in its subtlety.

  9. This is brilliant, thank you for all your tips and things. I’m trying to improve my craft and this stuff helps so much! My writing tends to be a bit… thin so I’ll try using this! I can’t decide whether unity or conflict is the better one, I expect it depends on a few different factors.

  10. I definitely use unity more often in my work, but I really like the contrast. I can see how readers would find such a strong connect to the character through this. I’ll have to use it more often!

  11. I’m going to keep this in mind next time I sit down to write. I think contrast is the more powerful of the two. Thanks for the tips!

  12. agree with your comment above, August 19, 2012 2:03 PM, seems like the two would be more powerful in conjunction with each other, than strictly alone, even if one predominates

    conversationally, which do i prefer? glancing at my work, i’d say unity with punctuations of conflict

    enjoying reading your prev articles (to 2007!) and your free outline sample, thanks 😉

  13. @Aimee: Truthfully, it’s a trick question. 😉 One really isn’t better than the other. As you say, it all depends on what works best for any particular scene.

    @Vicki: I probably err on the side of unity myself. It doesn’t take quite as much thought as contrast, although it doesn’t always pack the same punch.

    @Bree: Thanks for reading!

    @Adan: Wow, all the way back to 2007! Good heavens, who knows what dust bunnies are lurking back there in the archives. 😉

  14. k.m., those dust bunnies are tapping a mighty long foot there 😉 metaphorically-mixed speaking 😉

  15. Reckon I need to get out the broom and dust pan then!

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