“Comparison is the Thief of Joy” – Theodore Roosevelt
Good vs. Evil. Right vs. Wrong. Love vs. Hate.
Luke vs. Vader. Werewolves vs. Vampires. Obama vs. Romney.
The Past vs. the Present.
The actual plot of “Lost” vs. whatever the Hell was going on there.
What it all comes down to is Opposition – the classic conflict within Life Itself. It is the basis for all perception and the very foundation of Story.
Because conflicts – the very building blocks of all stories – begin with a single comparison.
Whether it is a cool breeze on a hot, summer day or two armies rushing to oppose each other on a battle field, comparison exposes the differences between all things and, without it, conflict cannot exist. Duality exists in nearly every part in our lives and we enjoy the emotion of experiencing and embracing it’s inherent differences . All sports, warfare, love, art and human interaction stem from our ability and our inherent need to differentiate between things. With difference comes opposition and judgment about which is better – and with judgment comes the heft and weight of emotion that drives our stories.
The Taoist philosophers believe that the descent of man from his purest state began the moment that he started naming things as he sought to describe the world. It began with the simplest of distinctions, such as “Night” and all that is “Not-Night”, “Me” and all those that are “Not Me” and, most important (for motivational purposes), “Mine” and all that is “NOT-YET-mine”. From the earliest moments of life, we learn by comparing.
As a child of the 1960’s, I had a poster on my bedroom wall of a poem entitled Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, which went from being a minor work in 1927 to become a devotional for the Counter Culture Movement. While the piece as a whole is still worthy of daily contemplation, one passage serves our purpose here regarding the twin fundamental truths about comparison and human nature:
“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
This is Human Drama in a nutshell, and an essential truth that you must not abandon in your writing.
So . . . what does this have to do with Teddy Roosevelt?
As creators, we must all be thieves of joy, using the distinct differences and specific desires of our characters to produce compelling conflict.
Because isn’t this what story structure is about? The upsetting of the apple cart? The ruination of the serene?
Each “World-Before-Story” we create in Act I is interrupted by the Inciting Incident, throwing things out of balance, and the remainder of the tale is all about seeking that vital and illusive New Balance. In our finest moments, we force our heroes to spend all of Acts II and III finding a middle ground that they can – and must – live with.
But it isn’t all about the conflict. The power of contrast and comparison is at play in every step of the process. Let’s take Roosevelt at his word and explore the power of comparison:
(1) Through Characters – as we write, the differences between now and then, hero and villain, right and wrong must be eventually clear to the reader so that they can choose up their sides in the contest. What good is a hero that you cannot root for, or a villain to root against? Your characters are, at their essence, the embodiment of your different IDEAS, and the comparisons you create for them are the way of testing their validity in story form. The specific sides need not be clear from the outset, and must not be in certain genres such as mystery and horror, but the contrasts and the characterizations must be clear enough for the reader/viewer to recognize the differences between the individual players.
(2) Through Scene – each scene must be necessarily different from the next and inhabitable enough to really place the reader/viewer there alongside your character. The journey should be more of a cross-country drive – with many distinct and unique stops- than an airplane hop across country. You need to sit inside each scene for a while and look around and truly get to know the place before you write. Remember: you took your characters here for a reason – make the most of it. And make sure the locations have a character of their own as well and, through your descriptions, their own personality.
(3) Through Dialogue – make sure your characters truly sound different as they speak. Do this by learning about speech patterns, rhythm and cadence. Do not resort to accents or caricature to get this across. Few things are worse than hokey dialogue that the reader must stumble through or the viewer must rewind to understand. Seek to write roles that are natural but different enough from one another that you could tell them apart without attribution.
(4) And through Your Own Voice – your work will be compared to others. It has to happen in order for you to gain a following. Sometimes it seems that Hollywood and Big Publishing are merging into one great, shambling beast, and even as they cry for new and different voices, they continue to produce books, films and TV that all seems the same. Certainly, the marketplace loves to homogenize through their notion of “the-same-but-different” so that financial risks can be minimized, but that must mean little to you in the privacy of your own creating. Always give them something that can only come from you, and keep refining, improving and submitting until they finally “get you”. It may take a while longer than pandering to the common denominator, but you’ll smile more often in the process.
By showing the reader/viewer the distinct nature of your characters and their world, we increase their ability to identify with your creations and your art. How well you use comparison and contrast in your writing dictates the power of your work and the efficacy of your message.
Until next time, don’t stop.
Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. His most recent comic book property is THE AMBASSADOR and his most recent project for TV is entitled THE STREWN.