In the comments thread of my last writing post, a question arose about what I meant by a scene needing two ideas to make it come alive. Glancing back at my Writing Tips list, I noticed that this idea is the very first thing listed. It occurred to me that it might be a good idea for me to write a longer post about each of these ideas.
My Writing Tips begins:
In art, we create the illusion of three dimensions with contrast. A single line forming a circle looks two-dimensional to the eye. Add shading around one side and suddenly it looks like a ball instead of a circle—as if the light were shining on the one side casting the far side into shadow. Our eye recognizes this contrast as the way 3-D objects look and assumes that the object on the paper is 3-D, too.
What applies in art is true in writing as well. Contrast is what makes the written word spring to life: contrast in theme, contrast in plot, contrast in setting, contrast in character.
The same way that shading tricks the eye by reminding us of what we see around us, contrast in stories reminds us of real life. In real life, things are untidy. Very seldom is anything accomplished without some difficulty. You get a new job, but you do not care for the location. You meet a nice man, but he has a girlfriend who lives far away he has to break up with before he can really see you. You love where you live but you miss your family who live somewhere else.
These tensions, between what we have in life and the way we would like things to be, are what keep us striving, what makes our life dramatic and interesting—interesting to others, I should say. Having a good life – getting a job in a place you love, meeting a great fellow who is free to date, having your family move to where you are – is wonderful for those who are living it, but not nearly as interesting to other people.
And that is the first lesson of writing: books are never about the way we would really like things to be.
They are never about happy people being happy. They are never about things that are just going well.They are never about creative people producing their art without obstacles.
They are never about Heaven.
Heaven, the state of real happiness, would be a wonderful place to be, but no stories can be set there because stories require the drama of uncertainty. Drama comes from overcoming obstacles, from not knowing whether or not the endeavor will be accomplished.
So, drama comes from conflicts, from overcoming obstacles. Obstacles come when there is a contrast between desired outcomes. Stories come to life when that contrast becomes apparent.
Now, you may ask: “But how does all this apply to my writing?”
When we make up stories to write, we often start with an idea: I want to tell the story of a Hobbit name Frodo; I want to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson; I want to tell the story of a frog who marries a princess.
Write about them doing…what?
That one idea by itself is never enough. A single idea is like the circle made out of a single line. It may be well-drawn, but it is still flat. Without shading, it does not come to life.
What is needed is a second idea to provide the contrast that brings the story alive: What if a Hobbit were drawn into a war story? What if Jefferson’s story were told as journal entries? What if the frog picks the wrong girl to kiss him?
Note that the story of Jefferson does not need a second plot idea. Jefferson’s life already has events and conflicts. What it needs is an approach. Something that helps the author frame the story, to choose which events to mention and how to bring the biography to life.
The moment the second idea, or story string, is discovered, the story comes alive. You “pull on the strings,” and the events begin to move in the author’s imagination. They stop being static and come alive.
When they come alive for the author, they are far more likely to come alive for the reader.
This is true for a novel. This is true for a short story. This is true for every individual scene.
Ever read a book that has long passages that just don’t seem to go anywhere? The characters you like are on stage. They are talking about some interesting subject, and yet the scene seem flat, static? That is a scene with only one string to it. The novel may have two (or many, many more) ideas dynamically contrasting to produce a great story, but that particular scene is only accomplishing one thing.
Books that really shine have an interesting contrast in every scene, sometimes even every page or paragraph. (Donald Maass claims you can even do it with every line.)
A good artist can learn to draw all figures with proper shading and perspective. If we writers can master the technique of Two Strings, we, too, can bring our works to life.