Juxtaposition: The Power of the Unexpected in Fiction

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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.


  1. I really love this K.M. I’d like to use it for my next writer’s group meeting. Well said and a great concept.

  2. I’m honored! Thanks, Jan. I hope your group finds it useful.

  3. It’s a big word, but hey – love the concept. Opposites make great characters. The unexpected make great plots. That’s basically all this is saying.

    Almost every post on this blog is extremely helpful. I’ve got to add this to my blogroll over at Write Big. Keep up the great work!

    -Brayden Hirsch

  4. Juxtaposition is at the heart of all great fiction. At its heart, juxtaposition is nothing more than conflict.

  5. Your posts always gives me something to think about… even in so far as improving a screenplay I’m working on right now. Indeed, writers save the world! I can’t thank you enough:)

    Pat from the Philippines

  6. I’m so glad you’re finding the posts useful! Best of luck with the screenplay.

  7. One author I know said when she works on a scene, she considers her plot points, a hook for the end, and a surprise for the reader.

    I try to avoid the ‘obvious’ — my six-foot-six cop didn’t play basketball and he has two cats, not a big, mean dog.

    Great advice

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  8. As I’m working on my own writing, I refer to the “surprise for the reader” as a revelation. What’s the revelation in this scene? If there isn’t one, I know I need to do some more digging.

  9. Juxtaposition certainly adds interest to the story. Your post has heightened my awareness about my NaNo entry for this year which I think definitely contains elements of unexpected contrasts. Now I be paying closer attention to props and situations as I write.

    Tossing It Out

  10. The best story ideas usually contain inherent juxtapositions, but it’s our awareness of those elements that really bring them to life. Good luck on NaNo!

  11. Hmm… I have no idea how I’m going to use that, but I know I need more of it. 🙂 Your posts always help me work on improving my writing! Thank you! 😀

  12. Hope you think of something spectacular!

  13. This is an excellent article. Thanks for writing it.
    Very practical and useful and I plan to use it.

  14. Glad you found it useful!

  15. When I think of juxtapositions, I think of memorable scenes in a movie. You know how a movie can instantly become a classic because of “that scene?” In writing a scene with contrasts, I like to think about it as a potential movie–if this story were a film, which scenes in it would have the startling contrasts and surprising twists of a classic scene? Which ones would people remember? Jurassic Park mastered this! Raptors chasing kids in a kitchen makes you feel that there is nowhere safe to hide, and it’s one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

    The Pixar movie Up, has really unusual contrasts. The house with floating balloons is at once bizarre and beautiful, and one of my favorite scenes is when (in the midst of a bustling city), thousands of balloons come flying out of the chimney and hoist the house into the air.

    Guardians of the Galaxy is also interesting because it incorporates loads references to the 80s that many people would find comforting and relatable–but in space. It’s part of the main character’s personality.

    Also, in the TV show “Taxi,” Reverend Jim is a dazed junkie whom nobody expects to know anything about anything, but every now and then he surprises his coworkers with a burst of unexpected knowledge or revelation (because he used to be a totally different person).

    These are just a couple that come to mind, but it’s very interesting to think about! Thank you for the post!


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