Most writers understand the value of creating contrast in their stories and characters. We’ve all been told to write our characters with dissimilar looks, and to give our antagonist and protagonist different types of skills and flaws. But when a writer takes any story differences and sets them up in parallel for the purpose of creating a contrast within the reader’s mind, that’s a literary technique called juxtaposition.
Juxtaposition: The arrangement of two or more ideas, characters, actions, settings, phrases, or words side-by-side or in similar narrative moments for the purpose of comparison, contrast, rhetorical effect, suspense, or character development.
As a writing technique, juxtaposition works great for characters, setting and prose to drive home messages about theme and to strengthen the bond between the reader and the story. Here are the three of the most common places a writer can add an aspect of juxtaposition to any story:
Juxtaposition in Character Development:
Every character should be unique, and giving characters juxtaposing positive and negative traits is a good way to meet that goal. It also helps the reader to distinguish between characters better and choose their favorites. For example, a writer is creating a story with a love triangle. This is a life-changing decision for the protagonist, and the writer wants the reader to feel the torment of picking one. Yet the two characters are like twins. The protagonist can’t go wrong with either because they are both perfect in every way! Now take the same love triangle, but give the two love interests juxtaposing traits. Now the protagonist has a real choice to make. Will it be the pessimist with a steady job, good family and a ten year plan, who offers stability? Or the wild optimist, with no plans for the future, but who makes life a non-stop party? The juxtaposition encourages the reader to make comparisons based on their own values. Once the reader has an opinion, they’re emotionally invested in the outcome of the love triangle.
Juxtaposition in Setting Selection:
Matching the setting to the tone of the scene is a common fiction tip, but it’s predictable. Instead use a juxtaposing setting to make the scene deeper and create another layer of emotion. To write about a father and son having a serious talk, many writers might pick a typical setting, like the dining room table. But what if dad takes the child to the demolition derby? The setting is all wrong for a discussion – it’s loud, crowded and packed with treats of soda, hotdogs and ice-cream. The boy is lulled into thinking it’s just another fun father/son outing. The choice of a juxtaposing setting takes on new meaning when the dad announces his plans to seek a divorce. Then the cars crashing into each other evolve into a metaphor for the boy’s life. The setting echoes and reinforces the out-of-control and frantic feelings the boy has as he realizes his home life is about to fall apart. As readers, we feel even stronger sympathy for the child’s pain because the father picked a horrible place to tell him devastating news.
Juxtaposition in Prose:
You can find examples of juxtaposition everywhere in literature, even in book titles. Look at War and Peace. By selecting juxtaposing words, Tolstoy created a powerful and memorable title.
Poets are a great source of prose examples; they will often use juxtaposing words within sentences. There are several examples in Romeo and Juliet. Poetic juxtaposition can be so striking, the word might read as a mistake within the context of the sentence.
Prose juxtaposition can also be structural. For example, many classical novelists, such as Charles Dickens, have used the antics of the rich in juxtaposition to the plight of poor. A thematic juxtaposition weaves throughout A Tale of Two Cities. The duality of the novel starts with the opening line and title, making it clear the juxtaposition is intentional.
- Never list or tell the reader the differences. It’s the reader’s job to connect the dots.
- Combine the unexpected in new ways and test the limits of the contrasts. You might create something fantastic.
- Sometimes all your hard work will go unnoticed and that’s okay. Lucky for us writers, using juxtaposition still works on a reader without them knowing about it.
- And don’t feel badly if you don’t notice the juxtaposition in books. It often takes active reading to notice these instances, and for some, being an active reader interferes with their love of the story.
I’ve used juxtaposition in everything I’ve ever written. It’s something I enjoy doing, like the literary equivalent of hiding an Easter egg and wondering how many people will find it. I’m always hoping someone will find it, but if they don’t, it’s still a funny little story I can reveal later.
What about you? Do you use juxtaposition in your writing? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.