shading a scene to create contrast

Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 18: Shading A Scene


In this post, we look at shading a scene to create contrast and change moods in your novels.

Welcome to week 18 of Anthony’s series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week’s post here.

[The 52 posts in the series are also available in a downloadable, advert-free workbook. Click here to buy it: Write Your Novel In A Year Workbook]

Goal setting

  1. Continue writing the scenes of your novel.

Breaking it down

Dynamics – soft light and explosions

In music, the dynamics of a song or performance relate to volume. In your novel, it’s pretty much the same. You contrast loud – or busy – scenes with quieter, more tranquil scenes.

This can even happen in one scene. For example, two lovers at a lively party with the beat of tropical house music escape to a quiet garden to sip beer from a cup and steal a kiss. It can be more subtle: a computer analyst listens to the beeps and whirs of his computers at a beach house, while the sea whispers and retreats outside the deck.

You can also amplify the ‘volume’ if you like. In the movie Grace of Monaco, we see Princess Grace having an argument with her husband in their plush bedroom while outside the palace windows, the dull-sounding fireworks of New Year explode in the night sky.

To create wider dynamics in your novel, you need contrasting scenes throughout. Some contrasts are obvious to develop: you could have some scenes at night, others in the day.  Scale is another contrast: you could move from a big warehouse to a small intimate bedroom.

In my novel, I realised I was getting a bit static with my scenes – especially in terms of the settings, and I needed to open it up a bit. For example, I’ve decided to look at having some scenes outdoors, at the sea, or at hotels, or on the street.

You could even play with the length of a scene – some can be short, sharp, with a minimal word count. Others could be longer scenes that take their time to build up to a plot point. Play with the ‘volume’ of your novel – and you’ll find the pace of your novel improves.

A little bit of levity

Even if you’re writing a serious drama, you need a little bit of humour – or at least a lighter tone in places. It will give it a little bit of contrast.  And if you’re writing a comic novel, you also need a few ‘serious’ moments – light touches of drama.

In Ed McBain’s Axe for example, we have our detectives investigating a grim crime – an old caretaker found with an axe in his head. The author contrasts this with some great comic dialogue between the two detectives – discussing the inane plots of two horror movies – as well as showing one of the detective’s gentleness with his two children and mute wife.

In my novel, I must be honest, I’m struggling to find this levity. As a writer, I tend to be a bit ‘dark’ and I have to consciously pull back from pushing the melodrama button. But I have found one comic character – Jenna’s stepmother, who is a bit of a lush and says inappropriate things at the dinner table.

My writer friend, Marc, always says, ‘There has to be a bit of sweet with the sour.’ So true. For every bit of pleasure, there has to be a bit of pain. Dark is always hungry for light – even if it’s the light from an open refrigerator.

Setting and contrast

Your setting can provide you with a great palette to create contrast on the page. Think of it: a Romeo-and-Juliet love story taking place in a shanty town or against the backdrop of a war. Or a violent shoot-out taking place in an elegant ballroom.

In my novel, for example, Jenna is watching old home movies of her mother, father, and herself as a child – these looming images of her once happy family are played out on a blank wall – while she sits alone in her living room. It’s a good way to contrast her present and her past. It adds a bittersweet tone to the story.

Keep in mind setting isn’t a static place: it includes objects of affection for your characters, hidden dangers – like the loose tile on a stair that’s never been fixed – and lots more.  Find those little details that will enrich your story and even add complications to the plot – like someone tripping on that tile.

Timelock — Two To Five Hours

  • Continue to write for a half hour or a full hour every day.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. Take a scene in your novel and switch it from a day scene to a night scene – or vice versa. How does it change the mood?
  2. Try to find a character with comic potential in your novel. It could be a dim-witted brother-in-law, an impatient driving instructor, or a clumsy waiter.
  3. Write about contrasting moments in your own life – when extreme joy turned to sadness in a short space of time.
  4. Look through your synopsis to see where you could add in other settings to place your scenes. It could be an aquarium, a dentist’s office, even a funeral home.
  5. Keep in mind: children, pets, and grandparents as characters can add great moments of levity.

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘Good storytelling is humanity’s great connector, and it might just stop the world from eating itself.’ — James Genn

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

Top Tip: The 52 posts are also available in a downloadable, advert-free workbook. Click here to buy it: Write Your Novel In A Year Workbook

by Anthony Ehlers

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 17: Expect The Unexpected
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 16: What Makes A Scene Work?
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 15: Draft Away

Top Tip: If you want coaching when you learn how to write a book, sign up for our online course.