Sometimes, when I least expect it, I’m struck by an aspect of writing I’ve long taken for granted. In this case, it’s what I’ll call emotional contrast. I often set humor beside sadness, for instance, so as to play one against the other, but this was a bit different and why I didn’t recognize it for what it was.
Last week, I threw a punch at myself I didn’t see coming. A tone was set early that resonated through the entire scene, changing the character of all that followed. It was clouds cast forth on a sunny day to create silhouettes.
I’m currently editing Protecting the Pneuma Key, which I drafted last November for NaNoWriMo. I’ve been busy with other writing obligations so this is the first edit I’ve performed on it.
Anyway, a little story background to help me explain…
Zephtasha Barcaine is a young witch in Cather who violates the law to perform a humane act. She ends up on probation, a shackle about her left wrist to block her magic. Thus, the life that had meant everything to her was stripped away.
A fallen witch, her then cobbled life becomes hellacious because of a secret exposed during the trial. Forbidden from leaving Cather, she endures cruel, relentless prejudice. Despite her anxiety issues, lack of self-esteem, and compulsive behaviors, she weathers her frequent downward spirals.
To do so, she reconciles herself to being treated as inferior.
Five years pass and our story begins, her supporters limited to a few progressively minded people. Tragedy strikes and there’s an attack. A mysterious artifact that could be a powerful device is stolen. A man is murdered. Children begin to disappear.
All the crimes possess only one common link: Zephtasha Barcaine.
You can imagine a lot of bad from that point on. In the midst of further persecution, a government agent is brought in. Trevin Dayne. He’s a man she once knew. A man who cannot possibly recognize her new self. A man who treats her with respect and awakens her heart.
In that context we reach a scene I’d long savored returning to. It takes place at a restaurant where everything that can go wrong for her does go wrong, but in comical ways. Keep in mind, Zepha possesses a knack for self-destructing, unintentional humor.
Here’s the thing. In the whirlwind of drafting all I remembered about the chapter were the funny moments to come. Thus, I was certain I’d be laughing while editing.
I did. Until I sobbed.
What happened? To be honest, I had no idea, but you can be sure I was determined to figure it out. I did. It happens before they enter the restaurant. It’s the moment when her harsh reality, the one she’s lived with so long that she often ignores it, is placed on display. Not just on display. She’s forced to explain it to the first man she’s ever been attracted to…
“Agent Dayne, no, we can’t do this.”
“Go here. To this place. Panorama Upon the Rock. This restaurant, it’s for the wealthy. Influential people dine here. I don’t think you quite understand the implications of being seen with me.”
“I’m conducting an investigation, Miss Barcaine.”
“Well, yes, maybe, I mean, you are, yes, of course, but in some dingy café in a bad quarter of town would be more appropriate. Not here. What’re you thinking?”
“I’m thinking I want to sample the best food in Cather and was told this was the place to go. You happen to be with me this evening.”
She pressed the heels of hands against her eyes. “Agent Dayne, there are certain realities. People tolerate me, to a degree, because I keep my distance. Here, this place … people will see me as intruding. Worse, they’ll think … well, this is a place where, I mean, it’s a place for couples.”
“And we’re a couple of people desiring an excellent meal. Given you decided to dress for the occasion, and because I had more questions, I decided tonight was a good night to eat here.”
Sweet mother of all, he wasn’t understanding. She stomped a foot. “Do you not hear what I’m saying? People will believe we’re here as a couple, that we’re dating. This will harm your reputation.”
This sobered me even more when I reread it in the light of the amusing moments that come later. At every step the rest of the way there’s a whispering voice reminding the reader that, yes, the moments are comical, but in truth Zepha’s heart is breaking. Her painful life has become thrust into the spotlight at the very moment she most wants a romantic illusion.
And all the while she’s trying to downplay the cruelty—to herself.
That’s why I’ll call it emotional contrast.