Powerful contrasts are at the heart of good storytelling. You’ve probably seen juxtaposition used in your favorite novels, films, poems, and short stories, even if you didn’t recognize it. Using juxtaposition effectively can elevate a mediocre scene into something evocative and memorable.
We’ll help you get started by giving you an easy juxtaposition definition, illustrating the different ways juxtaposition can be used in a story, and providing some tips, tricks, and examples from literature.
What is juxtaposition?
Juxtaposition is a literary device in which two contrasting or seemingly contradictory elements are placed close together to draw attention to their differences. This might be something like a cozy cottage contrasted against a harsh wartorn landscape. Writers can use juxtaposition to enhance the mood or theme of a story.
This might be something like love and war, or light and darkness, contrasted together to create a broader thematic arc for your story. Any time you contrast two or more things side by side, you’re using juxtaposition.
Some examples of juxtaposition might include two characters with wildly different personalities—one grumpy and pessimistic, and the other cheerful and optimistic; or, juxtaposing a character against a setting—for instance, a grumpy and pessimistic character on a bright summer’s day.
In both cases, the comparison between two elements or contrasting concepts makes the attributes of each one feel more vivid.
This juxtaposition definition is all you need to get started with contrasting two things for rhetorical effect. Now let’s explore it in more detail!
Why do writers love juxtaposition?
Juxtaposition draws the reader’s attention to certain traits and highlights them even more. We see this all the time in our most beloved fairy tales. One classic example of juxtaposition is in Cinderella: our heroine is treated like dirt and dressed in rags before bippity-boppiting her way into the prince’s arms with a snazzy new ball gown and updo.
By putting these extreme settings side by side, the stark contrast of poverty and seclusion becomes even more devastating, and the grand ball seems even more decadent in comparison. The writer has emphasized these two extremes by showing them side by side.
Another example might be if you were writing a tragic scene for your story where a character is killed off. You’ll want your scene to be evocative enough that the reader will feel it in their gut, and a great way to do this is through juxtaposition. You can enhance the tragic by also enhancing the comedic or optimistic—for example, your doomed character wins a competition, or patches things up with an estranged loved one, or finally earns the thing they’ve always wanted.
By placing positive feelings in your story right before negative ones, each will seem more intense and emotional by comparison.
If you’re struggling to make a scene feel more powerful, ask yourself what sort of emotion you want the reader to be feeling in that moment. Then, see if you can find a way to incorporate the opposite feeling in juxtaposition.
Types of juxtaposition
When writers talk about juxtaposition as a literary device, they’re actually referring to a broad umbrella literary technique for a range of different comparative tools. Here are some specific literary devices that fall under the heading of juxtaposition.
Antithesis means using two opposite words, phrases, or ideas side by side. Antithesis is often used at the line level rather than at the broader story level. This makes it a beloved device in poetry—but it can be just as effective in fiction, too.
A famous example of antithesis is in Charles Dickens’ novel about the French revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. The novel begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” This famous opening line creates antithesis by juxtaposing the opposing ideas of best and worst, wisdom and foolishness.
Another of juxtaposition’s literary terms, oxymoron is taking two contradictory words and using them together to communicate a deeper meaning. This might be something like “virtual reality,” “bittersweet,” or “deafening silence.”
Although these phrases all seem like they should be paradoxical, they are all true in their own way and communicate a truth to the reader. You can use oxymorons in poetry or in prose to add humor or poignancy (or sometimes both!).
3. Foil characters
A foil refers to a contrasting character, and is one of the most popular ways to use juxtaposition in a story. This technique uses opposite attributes to highlight differences between each person.
For example, Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby are foils of each other; one comes from old money and is greedy and arrogant, while the other is self-made and kind with an open heart. Putting a foil character and the main character side by side makes Tom’s prejudice and Gatsby’s open-mindedness clearer for the reader.
Sometimes foil characters will be the hero and the antagonist, but not always; they might be friends or lovers with very different but complementary personality traits. This is a cornerstone of romance novels.
Examples of juxtaposition in literature
Literary works by writers across the ages have used juxtaposition to enhance character, mood, and theme. Let’s look at some effective examples of juxtaposition throughout literature.
The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain
Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper is one of the most famous rags-to-riches stories of all time, launching a thousand imitations for all ages. There’s a reason this classic story archetype works so well: juxtaposition.
This story follows a pair of identical young boys: a prince who is heir to the throne of all England, and a ragtag urchin from an impoverished family. Twain uses the greatest possible class divide to make Prince Edward’s station seem even more entitled, and the young Tom’s lot in life seem even more depressing in comparison. The juxtaposition in this story draws attention to the broad inequality that was present in England at the time in which the story was set.
This is a good example of how you can juxtapose two concepts or elements to encourage readers to look at the world in another way.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare loved using juxtaposition in his writing, because it brings a poetry and musicality to his plays. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, reads a description of a one-act play to be performed:
“A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe, very tragical mirth.”
“Merry” and “tragical”? “Tedious” and “brief”?
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow!
How shall we find the concord of this discord?
He asks, how can a scene be both tedious and brief? How can tragedy be funny? He uses contrasts in the form of some oxymoronic phrases—“hot ice and wondrous strange snow” to illustrate that these things should never go together.
In response, Philostrate, the Master of Revels, explains that though the play is short, it’s so badly written that it seems to go on forever; and though it’s tragic, the acting is so terrible that it becomes humorous.
“Chivalry,” by Neil Gaiman
This short story (which you can and should read for free online, here!) uses juxtaposition brilliantly with two completely contrasting characters, as well as juxtaposition of formal and casual language, and juxtaposition of the grandiose and the mundane. Here’s an example of Galadd, knight of the round table, speaking with a little old pensioner:
“This,” said Galaad, “is the sword Balmung, forged by Wayland Smith in the dawn times. Its twin is Flamberge. Who wears it is unconquerable in war, and invincible in battle. Who wears it is incapable of a cowardly act or an ignoble one. Set in its pommel is the sardonynx Bircone, which protects its possessor from poison slipped into wine or ale, and from the treachery of friends.”
Mrs. Whitaker peered at the sword. “It must be very sharp,” she said, after a while.
“It can slice a falling hair in twain. Nay, it could slice a sunbeam,” said Galaad proudly.
“Well, then, maybe you ought to put it away,” said Mrs. Whitaker.
“Don’t you want it?” Galaad seemed disappointed.
“No, thank you,” said Mrs. Whitaker. It occurred to her that her late husband, Henry, would have quite liked it. He would have hung it on the wall in his study next to the stuffed carp he had caught in Scotland, and pointed it out to visitors.
Gaiman uses the contrast between the grandiosity of the noble knight wielding an awesome sword, and the mundanity a nice old woman hanging it next to a stuffed carp, to great comedic effect.
Ways to use juxtaposition in your writing
As you can see from those juxtaposition examples, juxtaposition is one of the most popular literary devices in a writer’s toolbox. Now that we’ve given you a few examples to show you how it looks on the page, you can start using contrast in your own story!
Here are some different ways you can use juxtaposition to contrast characters, settings, ideas, or abstract concepts to create a more emotionally resonant story for your readers.
Create atomosphere by contrasting setting
Setting plays a big role in a story, and it’s one of the most effective places in which writers use juxtaposition. You can use juxtaposed places in order to enhance your theme, your protagonist’s character arc, or both.
For example, maybe part of your character’s journey involves leaving a big, metropolitan city behind and moving to a small town. There’s a great opportunity here to play with contrast—show the city being bright, loud, hectic, sharp, full of danger and abrasive ninety-degree angles. Then your small town can be full of soft edges, open fields, and slow living. By showing these two things juxtaposed side by side, the reader gets a broader sense of how they differ and how those differences affect the character’s journey.
You can also use contrasting settings on a smaller scale, such as one character’s dirty studio apartment and another’s opulent mansion, or on a larger scale, such as two opposing time periods of history.
Enhance drama with contrasting characters
Foil characters, as we saw above, are some of the best ways to use juxtaposition in your writing. Think about the aspects you want to highlight in your protagonist, and then see if there’s a way to highlight the opposite traits in another character.
This might be something external, such as physical stature, family dynamics, or living conditions; or it might be something internal, like objectives, personality traits, or coping mechanisms in times of hardship.
For example, you could create two foil characters in a university setting by having them approach their studies in different ways. One might be a meticulous planner who outlines everything in bullet points and color-coordinated pens, beginning the very day a project is assigned, while the other procrastinates until the last minute and then churns the project out in one go at three o’clock in the morning.
Through these juxtaposed foil characters you could explore themes like ambition, adaptability, and work-life balance.
Meta: Are you wondering what juxtaposition is or how to use it in your writing? Let’s look at the definition of juxtaposition, with helpful juxtaposition examples.
Engage readers with contrasting imagery
Using juxtaposition in small, scene-level moments can be a powerful way to engage readers with your story. If you want to heighten the emotional impact of a scene, think about ways you can use to compare different subjects or ideas.
For example, you could show a devastating car crash in front of a pristine high-rise office building—an image of meticulous order against an image of uncontrolled chaos. Or you could show a young, hopeful woman striking up a conversation with a disenchanted elderly one—an image of youth against an image of old age.
Think about what you want your reader to focus on in the scene, and look for ways to use juxtaposed images that highlight those traits.
Add subtlety with contrasting tone
Things like the weather, the atmosphere, or even word choices can give a distinctive tone to your scene. Juxtaposing these ideas is a great way to grab your reader’s attention.
One example might be a lucrative business deal being made against a backdrop of a ferocious storm. Although the characters might use positive, excited language, the juxtaposition between them and the weather gives a new facet to the scene and foreshadows what’s to come.
Or, you could have your villain commit dark and unfeeling crimes while singing a favorite romantic pop song—this is a popular trick you’ll often see in films. This use of juxtaposition makes the villain’s actions seem even colder and more inhumane.
Use juxtaposition to give dimension to your story
Juxtaposition is one of the great unsung heroes of literature. Using it effectively will elevate your story to the next level—every time. Now that you know how juxtaposition works in writing, you can use it to bring new dimension to your characters, enhance powerful themes, explore complex relationships, and bring your settings to life. Sometimes the smallest contrast can make all the difference.