Every story is about contrasts. Things must go up and down to hold our interest and create suspense, otherwise a story will feel flat and uninteresting.
Take any story and focus only on its two parts: the beginning and the ending. In the beginning of every story, the hero is stuck in a dead-end existence. This part of the story ends on a negative, down note.
Now focus on the ending. This is where the hero battles the villain and ends on a high, positive note. Just by focusing on the beginning and end of a story, you can see the contrast between the beginning and the end. You need this contrast to emphasize the uplifting victory at the end.
What happens if you don’t have any contrast? Then you have a flat story. How exciting would it be for “Rocky” to start out as an over the hill boxer and stay that way? Would anyone really want to see a story about “Thelma and Louise” being stuck in a male-dominated world and staying there with no hope of escape?
nAll stories are about change and there’s no greater change than contrast between a negative and a positive. Wherever you have a negative, you have a positive following and wherever you have a positive, you have a negative following. That simply provides contrast.
Divide a typical 120-minute screenplay into eight 15-minute segments and you get the following:
(+) Segment 1 (-) — Your story typically begins with the hero in a somewhat positive state and slowly degenerating into a negative state.
(-) Segment 2 (+) — In the second segment, your hero goes from a negative state to a hopeful state that promises a way out. This segment ends with the hero entering a new world, such as WALL-E clinging to the rocket that takes off with Eve or Rocky getting a chance at the heavyweight champion of the world.
n(+) Segment 3 (-) — During this third segment, the hero starts off pursuing a minor goal. In “WALL-E,” WALL-E has latched on to the rocket holding Eve, but he still can’t get to Eve. When WALL-E finally does get to Eve, she thinks WALL-E took the plant and she’s determined to send WALL-E back to Earth again.
(-) Segment 4 (+) — In this fourth segment, the hero is still struggling but gradually gains support and eventually ends by achieving the minor goal he started pursuing at the end of Segment 2. In “WALL-E,” WALL-E finally convinces Eve that he didn’t take the plant and gets to dance with her in outer space. In “Star Wars,” this is where Luke finally rescues Princess Leia.
(+) Segment 5 (-) — This is where things start going downhill for the hero. In “Star Wars,” Luke gets pinned down by the stormtroopers and can only escape by diving into a garbage chute. Now they’re trapped and about to be crushed.
(-) Segment 6 (+) — This segment is mostly negative with the hero gradually getting beaten down, but in a sense it ends on a positive note because the hero is still alive. In “Star Wars,” Luke manages to escape from the Death Star despite losing Obi-wan Konobi. In “WALL-E,” WALL-E and Eve are about to be crushed and tossed out as garbage. Segment 6 ends with the hero in dire straits, but still surviving.
(+) Segment 7 (-) — Segment 7 usually starts with the hero taking action against the villain and gradually defeating all obstacles in the way. However, the villain has moved one step closer to finishing off the hero. In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis wipes out most of the terrorists, but the head terrorist now has his wife as hostage.
(-) Segment 8 (+) — The hero confronts the villain, who still appears to hold the upper hand. As they battle, the villain gradually loses and the hero wins, usually by relying on some trick, skill, or ally discovered earlier in Acts IIa or IIb. The hero vanquishes the villain and the hero not only gets what he wants, but much more than he ever imagined was possible. In “WALL-E,” WALL-E not only wins Eve’s love, but helps return the human race back to Earth to bring it back to life again. In “Rocky,” Rocky actually loses the fight, but wins the hearts of Adrian and the rest of the world that admires his courage in standing up to the champion for as long as he did.
End ending to Segment 8 is the ending to your story, so make it memorable. Your hero should not only win, but win big and win in an unexpected way that makes the victory even bigger and more important. It’s just not about the hero; it’s about other people that the hero cares about as well.
Contrasts are important in story-telling. Without contrasts, your story will feel flat. With contrasts, your story will feel like a roller coaster, forcing the audience to hold on and scream with delight as they wait to see what might happen next.