“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way –” A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
I remember clearly one of my favourite classic Star Trek episodes, Balance of Terror, began with the ringing of a bell and a wedding ceremony. What I didn’t understand then was that the same room would be the final scene where Kirk comforted the grieving widow. Begin with a wedding, end with a death. Juxtaposition. Powerful writing.
When you juxtapose- not only words- but images, symbols, characters, settings, or scenes, you provide strong opportunities for readers to divine deeper themes and feel greater emotional depths. As an audience, we pay more attention to contrast; we understand the impossible humanity in paradox. If I wrote, “He was a quiet man, screaming inside” or “The village was only 300 people in the summer, a metropolis of noise and activity to young Jane”, it is the contrast that stands out to the reader. A single light in a dark room, or a lone dark corner in a chamber of light registers like a beacon of protection against the sameness. We seek contrast, and explicit juxtaposition between two items to provide depth, meaning, and tension for the reader.
This is one of the reasons both archetypal epics and dystopian stories grasp the imagination so vividly. For example, in Chapter 7 of the classic science fiction novel The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. The protagonist, David, discovers that after his mother, Emily, gives birth to his baby sister Petra, his Aunt Harriet arrives with a request. Petra is certified by the Inspector “normal” and therefore human, but Aunt Harriet’s baby has a mutation. In this nightmarish future, babies born with visible mutations are cast out from society, and sent to The Fringes where other “Blasphemies” marginally exist. Desperate, Aunt Harriet concocts a plan to switch babies with her sister Emily to fake a normalcy certificate from the Inspector. Horrified by the very imputation, Emily demands Harriet to leave at once. The two sisters live in parallel similar circumstances, but that’s not enough. Wyndham deepens the juxtaposition between the two with yet more contrast. David describes his Aunt Harriet as a couple years younger, but softer looking and kinder than his authoritarian mother. Juxtaposed characters. Even more, in Wyndham’s dystopic Waknuk a woman who gives birth to three mutated babies in a row could be de-certified and her marriage dissolved. Juxtaposed setting. And finally, relief from the birth of Petra contrasted with the bodies of the unwanted Harriet and her baby, drowned in the river provides book-ends to the chapter. Juxtaposed plot. Wyndham piles juxtaposition upon juxtaposition to highlight the brutality of the world, and the imminent danger for David.
Consider your own stories. Are there natural devices begging for sharper juxtapositioning?