Making Yellow More Yellow
The Power of Contrast
by James Thayer
show differences. Yellow is more yellow when placed next to blue,
rather than next to white. The embroidery of Mona Lisa’s dress
neckline is made more intricate and rich by being next to the
evenness of her skin. In Nighthawks, Edward Hopper uses the
somber, dark exterior colors to make the yellow of the café’s
interior harsh and impersonal.
Writers can employ contrast in the same way. Raymond
Obstfeld said, “Putting
contrasting elements next to each other tends to emphasize each
work; putting similar elements next to each other tends to blend
Contrast can make our fiction leap off the page.
Here is where contrast is particularly useful:
Graham Greene wrote in Ways of Escape: "The
main characters in a novel must necessarily have some kinship to the
author, they come out of his body as a child comes from the womb,
then the umbilical cord is cut, and they grow into independence.
The more the author knows of his own character the more he can
distance himself from his invented characters and the more room they
have to grow in.” But new writers tend to make not only the main
character like themselves, but all the characters, and so they blend
A character’s personality, appearance, and motivation
will stand out if a second character is starkly different.
The hero and the sidekick should be unlike each
other. An example: in Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the Royal Navy
in the time of Nelson, the first of which is Master and
Commander, the protagonist is Jack Aubrey, who is tall and
stout, and has a rosy, sunburned complexion. He is an expert at sea
but a bumbler on land. His friend Stephen Maturin is slender and
pale, with a fidgety manner. He is a surgeon and naturalist, and he
is inept at sea but savvy on land. Aubrey and Maturin are different
in almost all ways, and they are made vivid by the contrast with
The hero and the antagonist should be different. In
Oliver Twist, Dickens’ Bill Sikes is cynical, cunning, and
violent. The young hero, Oliver, is loyal, honest and
And the hero and the romantic interest should be
different. In C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, the steam
launch’s skipper is Charlie Allnutt, a carefree disheveled river
trader who enjoys a stiff drink. He falls in love—after a
fashion—with Rose Sayer, a repressed and teatotalling spinster.
This is an important writing technique: a character
will be more memorable when placed next to a wildly different
scene will be more intense if placed next to a romantic scene, which
will also make the romantic scene more romantic. A scene filled
with dialogue should be placed next to one with more action or
setting description. A funny scene next to a tense scene. A
tearful scene next to a joyous one. A faster paced scene next to a
slower paced scene. As many elements in one scene should be as
different from the elements of the next scene as possible. Mix it
Here is how a master does it. The opening scene in
Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons is a drunken revelry at
the exclusive Dupont University, where alcohol gales are blowing in
frat boys’ heads and where “all comments seem more devastatingly
funny if shouted” and the boys “kept disintegrating over one
another’s wit.” There’s a fistfight, lots of vomit, and “Yo, Hoyt!
‘Sup?” dialogue. The next scene is a dignified high school
graduation ceremony in a rural North Carolina town, where
valedictorian Charlotte Simmons is introduced as “’a young woman who
this fall will become the first graduate of Alleghany High School to
attend Dupont University,’” and where “the adults in rows of folding
chairs behind her murmured appreciatively.” The settings,
characters, pace, and tone are markedly different in these two
scenes, and both scenes are enlivened by the contrast.
Between a characters and the setting:
character’s personality can come vividly to life if she is placed in
a setting that contrasts with her personality. The writer doesn’t
have to tell the reader her heroine is calm if the character walks
Illustration by Jennifer
Paros - Copyright 2010
a cemetery at night. A writer need not tell the
reader her nurse is an optimist if the nurse is lively and grinning
while at work in an oncology ward. A character who won’t smile
at his daughter’s sixth birthday party is indeed dour. A
character who can chat airily while on a tour of a slaughterhouse
isn’t bothered by much.
Between a character and the situation.
In Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island,
Jim Hawkins is an innkeeper’s young son. He is a dutiful and honest
landlubber, and naïve in the ways of certain things, such as. . . oh
. . . say, cutthroat pirates. He is thrown into an adventure on the
schooner Hispaniola, with a one-legged fellow named Long John
Silver who seems to be more than the cook he professes to be. Jim
is entirely out of his element, and he must learn quickly about
cannons and knives, a ship’s rigging, treasure caves, brandy,
doubloons, betrayal and bravery.
A plot is strengthened when the protagonist isn’t
suitable—at first—for the situation. One of fiction’s great rules
is that a surgeon performing a tracheotomy isn’t as exciting as a
nun performing a tracheotomy.
Between sentences: Sentences
come in a wide variety: simple sentences, compound sentences,
complex sentences, and probably others. Writers dare not think
about sentence structure too long because the subject kills brain
cells. But the easiest way to use contrast in sentence structure is
to vary sentence length.
When short sentences follow long ones, they act as
points of emphasis.
An example from Charlotte Bronte’s
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in
the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company,
dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so
somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was
now out of the question.
I was glad of it.
Here is another example, from Dean Koontz’s
With draft beer and a smile, Ned Pearsall raised a
toast to his deceased neighbor, Henry Friddle, whose death greatly
Henry had been killed by a garden gnome. He had
fallen off the roof of his two-story house, onto that
cheerful-looking figure. The gnome was made of concrete. Henry
The short sentence acts as a rim shot, emphasizing by
contrast the earlier sentences.
A lemon is sour by any measure. But swallow a
teaspoon of sugar, then bite into a slice of lemon. It’ll blow your
head off. The same technique can be used in writing.
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing