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The evil truth about contrast and conflict in all great storytelling

By on Aug 21, 2013 in Uncategorized | 4 comments

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Conflict and contrast in story

Our everyday life and language is built on opposites and contrasts.

I hate you … I love you. You’re beautiful … I’m ugly. We’re rich … they’re poor.

And if you ask someone how things are going, you’ll typically get a conflicting message “Oh, it’s up and down” or “I’m so cold, but my feet are warm.”

Thinking about it, our lives and surroundings are based almost entirely on binary oppositions, or paired contrasts – night and day, left and right, man and woman. And their very co-existence is essential for us to understand the world, events and emotions.

For understanding to occur, things need their paired opposite. Their very opposition creates and gives meaning. We get it.

 

Darkness proceeds daylight

That means we don’t actually learn and derive meaning from what things are, but from their relationship to other things.

Have you ever considered how you’re able to understand (and appreciate) being healthy? Because you’ve either been sick yourself or have seen sickness. By knowing both you’re able to appreciate their differences and meaning.

Similar relationships explain how we’re able to grasp the concepts of life and death, nature and culture and simple acts like switching things on and off.

As brand story strategist, Bernadette Jiwa, recently wrote in the best brands are mirrors:

“The genius of the ‘Dove Sketches’ campaign wasn’t that it highlighted the issues women have around body image and beauty, it was that it held a mirror up to every one of us. It tapped into our collective vulnerability on a visceral level …

… The best brands reflect our potential back to us. They resonate with us not necessarily because they sell the best products, but because they help us to see the best in ourselves.”

By showing the empty space (or differences) between things, we actively engage in trying to resolve the disparity. That’s active storytelling at its best.

 

Confusion reigns

It’s the subtleties of storytelling that can be confusing.

Everyone has their own definition of a story and the essential components. Worse still, various terms are bandied around in contexts that do more to confound than illuminate the magic of how to create a story well told.

This is no exception.

To help unravel one of the golden threads that holds stories together, here’s my framework:

Contrast and opposites are the application; tension and conflict are the result.

The first pair adds meaning and understanding; the second pair creates feeling and emotion.

In my framework, the existence of opposites/contrast within a story gives it the desired tension/conflict. It taps into our unconscious workings trying to resolve the issues. We’re wired that way.

Now let’s move on to the nitty-gritty.

 

Conflict v’s contrast in stories

Conflict stirs our emotions so that we engage and involve ourselves more deeply in a storyline. Many writers and storytellers therefore argue that conflict and tension are must-have essentials in every great story, no matter the type, use or medium.

As noted by Greg Elwell of B2B Inbound, clashes and conflict are considered essential, even in online content marketing:

Creating elements of conflict in your content is more important to engagement than how well you write.”

After years of study and dissection, story analysts and experts believe that opposition or contrast is the fundamental loadstone in our understanding of a narrative, or story.

Let me put the two together for you.

Take any world story (myth, folktale or legend), then boil it down to its syrupy goodness and you’ll find why they have a timeless and universal resonance.

Reduced down, they all feature binary opposites – heroes and villains, good and evil, strengths and weaknesses – that show you contrasting ideas, beliefs and values. These engage, involve and pique your interest through the tension and conflict created.

Rolled together they capture you, as well as helping you understand the true meaning of the story being told.

 

Does one size fit all?

Once this storytelling secret was decoded, writers and storytellers have endlessly used it to great effect; creating over the centuries some of the most engaging and entertaining stories of all time.

So does that mean that every single story – big, little, anecdotal, brand, corporate, value-based, leadership, fiction, nonfiction, movie or play –  have opposites and conflicts?

That one question confounded me for a long time.

I kept asking myself  … Should they all have it? Do I have to create it, even if it doesn’t exist? Must every [type of] story include conflict, tension or heroes on a journey?

Sometimes there are instances I’ve found – especially in product, brand and corporate stories – where it just doesn’t fit.

And thankfully I’m not a lone voice.

Story specialist, Shaun Callahan, of Anecdote agrees. He expounds that stories don’t need conflict and resolution, or a hero for that matter:

“Hmmm, I thought stories must have a hero, facing a challenge. We are way too influenced by Hollywood. When you listen to stories told in organisations you get a whole new perspective.”

That said, often with some digging around you’ll find those sneaky opposites lurking underground, working their magic on subtle, deeper levels.

 

Opposites in action

Let me clarify.

The application of contrast can be as subtle as showing the differences between thingscharacters, products, results.

Those differences can be conveyed through intangibles – intellect, emotions, attitudes, beliefs or values. Or they can be tangible – physicality, shape, size, strength, language, colour and appearance – of the characters or brands whose story is being told.

By showing both, we understand the contrast between the two.

And the darkness becomes daylight.

 

See how they work?

We make sense of the world through stories.

Contrasts and the tension they create, involves us and helps us understand our life and the world around us.

Has this helped unravel one of the story-making threads for you? Let me know in the comments

 

Photo credit: Stephen Poff via photopin cc

 

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4 Comments

  1. Greg Elwell

    August 21, 2013

    Post a Reply

    Di, Thanks for the mention and putting forth your ideas and “framework” for using these powerful elements in storytelling. In business, it’s difficult sometimes to uncover the conflict because no one wants to fess up to it. They just want to talk about how great their stuff is. Why is it great? Because it overcame a problem. A pain point – conflict. Exactly!
    Greg Elwell recently posted..How to Craft a Compelling B2B Customer Success Story

    • Di Mace

      August 22, 2013

      Post a Reply

      You’re right Greg. Even in my internal (corporate) storytelling work, some of my clients won’t fess up to mistakes or problems/conflict … but with digging you can always find some dirt :)

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