Writing is much more intentional than a lot of people might think. With literary devices, a writer can craft an extremely specific and intentional experience for their readers.
If you want a sentence to have particular emphasis, a character’s traits to shine through stronger, or if you want a scene to carry a heavier emotional load, you might try the literary device juxtaposition!
Juxtaposition can be used for much more than the things I listed, so let’s talk about what it is, how to use it, and look at some examples.
What is Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition, in the context of writing, is the pairing of two items or concepts to compare and contrast for effect. These items could be things like scenes, themes, words, phrases, or images.
Juxtaposition can be used to create a stronger emotional reaction in your reader. For example, a happy or uplifting scene right next to a sad scene will make the happy scene seem happier and the sad scene seem sadder.
Let’s look at a few different types of juxtaposition.
In A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, we see juxtaposition in the opening prose:
“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…”
Juxtaposition is a theme throughout A Tale of Two Cities, and this opener strongly sets up for it.
Besides being used to strengthen prose, juxtaposition can be used to draw a contrast between scenes (a very dark scene next to an uplifting scene), characters, imagery, and more. Let’s look at a few more examples.
A character who juxtaposes the traits of the protagonist is called a foil. A common misconception is that a foil is synonymous with an antagonist. A foil doesn’t have to be an antagonist. A foil character can be an ally, a friend, a romantic interest, or a family member of your protagonist–they simply have traits that contrast with your main character’s.
If you pair a very grumpy character with a kind and patient character, the kind character will seem sweeter, and the grumpy character will seem more cantankerous. Think of Spongebob and Squidward or Belle and the Beast. Those are juxtaposed characters, and their proximity makes the contrast very obvious, emphasizing those traits.
More examples of juxtaposed characters:
- Darcy and Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. Darcy is grumpy, taciturn, and antisocial. Bingley is sweet, optimistic, and personable. Placing them as best friends contrasts and emphasizes those traits.
- Tom Canty and Prince Edward in The Prince and The Pauper. This pair contrasts lifestyles and the opportunistic benefit of birth between the two.
- In Looking for Alaska, Alaska is a bold, free-spirited, reckless girl with a tumultuous past and shaky present. Pudge is a relatively boring kid from an uneventful background. When he meets Alaska, the contrast between their characters makes him examine himself and his life.
- In The 39 Clues series, Amy and Dan Cahill are siblings with perfectly opposite personalities. Throughout the series, they learn to understand each other and themselves more. By the end of it, they’re more similar than they are different. In this case, the juxtaposition of their character traits led to their character arcs.
Juxtaposition in that one awkward scene from Pride and Prejudice (2005)
I’ll use Pride and Prejudice for examples until I die, but in this scene, Lizzie is having a chill time exploring the manor, listening to piano music. Darcy and Georgiana have a cute moment that puts the audience at ease, so the snap and quick zoom before Lizzie runs away is more jarring. Putting a calm moment before panic makes it more impactful.
Another bit of juxtaposition in the same scene is how Lizzie is running to get away from Darcy, while he catches up to her with a calm, slow gait. That works as a metaphor for their character dynamic.
ANOTHER piece of juxtaposition is when they start talking–they speak over each other, rushed and unintelligible. Then they both stop and the silence weighs heavier between them because of that jolt of words and sounds (and pent-up affection RIP). The silence feels more painful because of their jumbled attempts at conversation right before it.
You can see an example of visual juxtaposition when it cuts from the close-in shot of Lizzie’s face to the wide shot of her running down the stairs outside. In film, that kind of juxtaposition lends to tension, pacing, and movement in a scene.
Juxtaposition is simply a literary device pairing things together to create contrast. It’s one more tool to control your stories and how they affect your readers.