I came home the other night and wasn’t quite ready to sleep, so I threw on a movie I’d been meaning to watch for a while: Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies.
Set in Japan towards the end of World War II, [spoilers] it details the impotent efforts of Seita, a teenage boy, to save his baby sister Setsuko from starvation, and her eventual death by hunger.
It’s at this point I should confess, I watched this movie while eating. A lot
As Seita was stealing potatoes and turnips, I was literally licking my plate clean; as Setsuko famished, I felt my own belly rumble and considered another portion of midnight feasting.
It was delicious, until I felt a profound lump of shame as these kids suffered from attrition, malnutrition, destitution, devastation, and death. It is not a happy movie.
I wasn’t wrong to eat during the movie, we primarily invented movies to give us more reasons to eat popcorn, but what strikes here is the contrast. This movie is about hunger, and I was gnashing on my second dinner.
When you’re telling a story, contrast can expand your characters’ emotions. Loneliness at home is easy, and in a crowd is devastating; happiness at a party is fun, and at a funeral is sadistic. If a character is a drug dealer, he should sell drugs at rehab, if you want to tell me about heartache, do it through the lens of a marriage counsellor.
You might call contrast irony, and you wouldn’t necessary be wrong, but where people confuse irony with things that are absolutely not ironic, Alanis, contrast is a pretty easy concept to grasp.
Not every story needs contrast, and indeed too much can steer the story into the absurd, but it’s a useful tool to have in your belt of writer’s tricks. So next time you’re stuck on a scene, add a dollop of contrast, and see if there’s something to chew on.
written by shane vaughan
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