An easy way to add depth to a story is to introduce one of the most marvelous techniques known to writers: juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is the art of contrast, the foundation of dichotomy, and the tool of both subtlety and boldness. In using juxtaposition, we’re able to take two seemingly incompatible things and combine them in a way that highlights both to an even greater advantage.
Juxtaposition is what gives us charming scoundrels such as Han Solo, killers with a conscience such as Jason Bourne, and fanatically loved villains such as the Phantom of the Opera. The battle scene that takes place in a posh ballroom, the car chase in a minivan, the happy reunion in the midst of a thunderstorm—all offer an unexpected element that boosts the scene from ordinary to memorable.
So how do we go about power-packing our fiction with juxtaposition? Ask yourself the following questions.
1. What would be unexpected?
This is a question authors should ask themselves at every important juncture in their stories. Originality is hard to come by these days; if you can find a new ray of light—however tiny—to shine on an old story/character/setting, readers will sit up and take notice.
2. What is expected?
Sometimes we can find the answer to the first question by knocking at the back door. If we know what readers will expect from our stories, we can sometimes work to turn those expectations on their heads.
3. What contrast offers the most depth?
Often the most striking juxtapositions are those that are most startling: the heartless warlord who is kind to orphans, the genial butler who strangles kittens, the rough and ready cowboy who can play piano concertos. Go beyond the pedestrian choices to find those that will tell you something about the heart of your character.
4. What props can be used as illustration?
In his essay, “Subversive Details and Characterization” (Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston), Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin suggests making “a list of all the props associated with that character, all the things they touch, use, handle, and so on, in the story….” Then “add another prop to the list, one you’ve just created on the spot, and make it a prop that doesn’t quite fit in with the others.” What does this tell you about your character’s unexpected personality traits?
5. How can the setting support the juxtaposition in character?
Juxtaposition in setting is fabulous in itself, but when used in concert to further characterization, it reaches a whole new level. Perhaps the entire setting is in contrast with the character (a Victorian society belle in the wilds of Africa), or perhaps the setting can mirror, and strengthen, the character’s inner juxtaposition (in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, the phantom’s subterranean lair is both beautiful and freaky).
Juxtaposition provides an endlessly fascinating process that allows us to deepen our characters—and, as a result, our stories—in myriad ways. Bring on the originality, intensity, and memorability!
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