Juxtaposition: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly...and the beautiful...cuz contrast
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
If you saw my latest post in the Foul, then you will be familiar with the sci-fi book I read not so recently titled Nexhuman. You will also be aware that I have mixed feelings about it. However, it did get me thinking about one of the ultimate tools in the writer’s kit: Juxtaposition. Better known as contrast.
Just as an artist knows that a piece needs contrast (dark and light) to be engaging, a good writer knows that a book needs contrast to engage its reader.
After reading the first few chapters of Nexhuman, I was pleasantly pleased with the author’s use of juxtaposition. It felt like a love story contrasted against a backdrop of garbage and filth. Needless to say, this feeling did not last, and it turns out the book wouldn’t continue in this way past the first 20%. And for more on how Nexhuman utterly failed me, go back to Dirty Worlds, and Feeling Dirty.
However, your book need not be a let down in the end.
So let’s talk about how you can use juxtaposition in your writing to draw in the reader and highlight the best/most important parts.
Juxtapose a Theme
A great way to highlight the theme of your story is to be always contrasting it against…well...itself. A good theme explores the two (or many sides) of an issue. It asks a question. If it doesn’t then it is a moral and perhaps not a great fit for a modern fiction story. Or perhaps it is….do what you want. There are no rules.
But let’s look at an example. The theme of our new science fiction short story anthology, The Beginning & End of All Things, is essentially: What is humankind’s role in the universe? Within that theme, the stories included explore what this ultimate role is, whether it is positive or negative, and if it even matters in the grand scheme of things.
Your novel should also explore your theme in this sense, and this exploration should be shown through your characters, setting, and plot. As you go through the motions of detailing your theme, highlight what you are saying by contrasting it against the opposite side of the argument.
Say your theme is: Are emotions helpful in a time of crisis? Your protagonist is hot-headed, and he is in an argument with another over something innocuous. You can contrast his emotional outburst against a foil (another character) who is calm, behaving the opposite of your protagonist. Perhaps this outburst ends with him being fired or even injured by the calm man he is arguing with.
You can also contrast something like this with the world around him. You may want to highlight how vulnerable your protagonist’s anger makes him in a heavy situation (or the opposite). Juxtaposing him against a calm but deadly backdrop (calm seas before a storm, still heat before a tornado, even a cat slowly stalking its prey in the background) could be a powerful way to explore this idea without having to say it outright.
There are endless ways of contrasting your theme. But I wanted to put it first because I think it is the most important. All of the following sections can be used to add contrast to a theme or to a single character, setting, plot, or image (or all of that at the same time).
Juxtapose a Character
We have already mentioned that characters can be placed beside other characters that contrast their mental states or personalities. You can do the same for their looks (eg. Beauty and the Beast), their goals and motivations (Ted explores New York to find true love, Barney does the same to sleep with everything on two legs—How I Met Your Mother).
But characters can also be juxtaposed against themselves. Like a vampire that puts newspaper down to keep the furniture clean before maiming someone (What We do in the Shadows).
These are just a sparse few examples of ways to contrast your characters, and you will be able to come up with endless ways to do it for yours too.
Juxtapose a Setting
Settings are best juxtaposed with other settings across the span of the novel as your plot and characters evolve. For instance, when you begin your novel you will want to show your character in his normal setting. As the plot sets off, contrast this beginning setting with another that reflects how your character's life is now changed forever.
I thought when I started reading Nexhuman, that the author was going to use the garbage-land setting as a way to contrast the beauty of one small part of it. He did not end up doing that, but you could in your books. Create a setting with the sole purpose of highlighting the small thing in it that does not fit. Perhaps a debauched nightclub with a small, innocent child sitting at the bar. A serene landscape with an animal carcass rotting the grass. Anything you want.
There are a million other ways to use juxtaposition in your stories. This was just a small intro into some of the areas you might want to focus on in your stories.
What are some of the best instances of juxtaposition you have seen in books or movies/TV recently? Or even in real life?
Let me know in the comments.