Juxtaposing Beauty and Ugliness in Storytelling

So, today I wanna talk about a phenomenon which I first really heard talked about in (of all places) the behind-the-scenes of the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, but more recently saw perfectly illustrated in the Studio Ghibli Film Princess Mononoke (which is fantastic, in case you didn’t know already; I’m always late to the party on these things). It’s the sort of thing that you might hear talked about in discussions of art direction and so forth, but I think it extends, as an idea and a narrative paradigm, to all forms of storytelling and story direction.

Fundamentally, it’s the fairly simple idea of taking something beautiful and contrasting it with something ugly. You can see this very visibly in films (like GOTG), but you can find it, at the most basic level, wherever there is Story.

Morag_(Planet)_02.jpg
(Credit to Marvel Wikia. And hey, look, I have illustrations now!)

Take the planet Morag, for example (pictured above). It’s that abandoned planet the first Guardians of the Galaxy film starts on, where Peter Quill finds the orb. As you can see, its surface is kind of a hole, with wet ruins and belching clouds and abyssal trenches and so on. It’s covered in the wrecked remains of a broken civilization, and some of their skeletons. It’s a generally gnarly-looking place. But it’s got this glorious, beautiful sunset-type skyline to it (more evident in the films than in the picture above), which results in this very powerful contrast, which does a lot of cool stuff I’d like to talk about (incidental rabbit trail: This trend continues throughout the film, and into the next one, which is part of the reason why Ego’s Planet feels kind of unconsciously unsettling, because it’s all beautiful all the time, unlike every other location in the GOTG universe shown up until then).

At a basic level, this juxtaposition (what a fun word that is!) effectively amplifies both the ugliness of Morag’s surface, and the beauty of its skies, making them both ultimately more effective, and more meaningful. Relatively, something beautiful is going to seem all the more gorgeous and precious if you surround it with ugly or banal things; a diamond in the rough feels a thousand times more poetic, and thus a thousand times more precious, than a diamond in a pile of equally shiny diamonds. The plant in the movie WALL•E carries a lot more weight because it first appears in a landfill, and not in a forest. Conversely, something ugly appears all the more hideous when it is surrounded solely by beautiful things. Contrast implies and thus creates conflict, which is the building-block of story.

And where does Princess Mononoke come into this? Well, simply put, it executes on this amazingly. In the very first few moments of the film, you’re confronted with these utterly beautiful, Ghiblian vistas, which are then contrasted (slight spoiler?) with this totally hideous monster which shows up. All of a sudden, those vistas feel that much more beautiful, and that much more idyllic, simply because we’re shown something so much more monstrous than them. And that monster immediately creates such a powerful impression as it rampages through those vistas, when, if it was in a film as dark and hideous as itself, we might dismiss it as mindlessly macabre.

And I think there is a great lesson here. Not merely in the fundamental, pseudo-philosphical rule of contrast—of light and shadow—that can be found in all forms of art, but also in the balance of Story itself. I feel sometimes, in this polarized and ultimately haphazard age, we have become very unbalanced in our storytelling. We either tell ludicrously gritty stories, where everyone is covered in mud, everyone is bleeding, and our protagonist has machetes instead of basic human inhibitions, or else resort to the other extreme, and sling saccharine rainbows at our readers and viewers with unbridled exuberance, and forbid even a single cloud to cast its shadow over our story’s skies. And while there is room for nearly every sort of story on this wide world of ours, I do think we are making a bit of a mistake as aspiring creatives when we decide to write stories that are either “gritty” or “pretty,” as if the two are mutually exclusive. And we are certainly making a grievous mistake when we associate a “serious” story with an exclusively “gritty” one.

Speaking as someone with a long and boring history of trying to write dark, gritty, “serious stories,” and then intermittently running off to write sunshiney, ludicrous, rainbow-sparkle stories that lacked any real heart, I think if we purposely tried to balance the grandeur and the grit in our stories, we might find better results. I’m not saying every story has to be gritty, or every story has to be gloriously beautiful, but I do think a little beauty ought to be found in every book, and a little darkness ought to rear its head in every scene. For without light, how can the shadows seem long, and without darkness, how can we find the light? Shading and lighting are important in painting, and they’re important in painting Stories as well.

If we want to write gore, we don’t have to shy away from it, but we shouldn’t shy away from beauty, either. There is a great deal of violence Princess Mononoke—when there are action sequences, they are plenty gory ones—but the film still stops at the tops of hills to admire the view. It doesn’t cheapen anything, and thus everything is incredibly impactful. It doesn’t feel the need to relentlessly pursue the same theme, or to follow up action scene after action scene with yet more action. And yet, it’s not merely all walks in the woods. It’s all very measured, and so you never become desensitized to any of it, so the story really reaches you without any interruption.

Having watched both of them recently, I can’t help comparing the violence of  Princess Mononoke to the violence of the Bruce Willis movie RED (and yes, I know that comparison isn’t fair in the slightest). RED was a perfectly good action movie, as an action movie, but its violence certainly didn’t have nearly the same heartfelt impact on me that Mononoke‘s did. I would’ve never considered crying over the loss of anyone in RED, and I certainly didn’t feel upset over the destruction of anything in the midst of its explosions. It was so relentlessly violent and destructive it ultimately made its world feel worthless (granted, that’s not a problem with RED specifically, that’s a problem with many action films in general). The thing is, I can’t remember really anything strictly beautiful about RED. And, sure, I know that it wasn’t trying to be beautiful, and I’m definitely not trying to play movie critic here, but still, all stories being stories, I think the more balanced narrative of Mononoke absolutely had a deeper effect on me. And perhaps that simply is because it did pursue the beautiful, as well as the gruesome.

For some reason, while I’ve spent far too much time writing far too much flowery, descriptive prose, I’ve never really considered beauty as an ingredient in any of my stories. I’ve thought about grit and violence, mostly because the present culture emphasizes these things as being “adult” and “serious,” but never really beauty. And I think this was a serious mistake on my part. I don’t think the solution to my writing tribulations is the complete purging of all grit from my storytelling—as someone who has been through a lot of heckfire in life, I think grit is a genuine part of my writing—but I do believe a conscious inclusion of beauty in my work is going to result in a better balance, and thus ultimately a better story. Stories are, at their essence, conflicts, and conflicts are merely contrasts, one way or another. And, artistically speaking, you have to balance your contrast.

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Have you ever thought about intentionally including beauty in your own work? How do feel about grit, both in popular culture and in your own writing? Have you thought about the balance of the beautiful and the macabre in your own story, or the contrast of your story’s “shading” in general? Let me know in the comments!

Non potui cogitare quid dicam.

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