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How to use juxtaposition in a sentence
By BBC Maestro
Juxtaposition is all about contrast. It’s popularly used as a literary device and can be found in the art world too.
But what exactly is juxtaposition? And how can an aspiring writer use juxtaposition in a sentence? Read on to find out.
What is juxtaposition?
The word juxtaposition comes from combining the Latin word juxta, meaning ‘next’, with the French word poser, meaning ‘to place’.
In simple terms, juxtaposition occurs when two entities are placed side-by-side to highlight the contrast between them.
Juxtaposition can be used with people, places, objects, behaviours or ideas. Typically a sentence using juxtaposition will describe a situation where two opposing elements are included, to draw contrast and comparison between the two elements.
Some common elements used in juxtaposition include:
- Life and death
- Good and evil
- Light and dark
- Young and old
- Wisdom and foolishness
- Virtue and vice
- Sweet and sour
Fiction writers often use juxtaposition deliberately to highlight the contrast between two things or characters. If you’re an avid reader, once you understand juxtaposition - chances are you’ll spot it everywhere. But why exactly is juxtaposition such a popular literary device amongst writers?
Why use juxtaposition?
In creative writing, juxtaposition in writing can be used for a range of different reasons. These most commonly include:
- To emphasise a character trait
- To add an element of humour
- To give a sense of irony
- To build tension or suspense
In fact, the reasons for using juxtaposition are as varied as writers themselves.
“If you hope to drag your reader through the entire length of your story from beginning to end without their interest waning or lagging, it would be well advised for you to use some inventive language,” says legendary writer, Alan Moore in his BBC Maestro course on storytelling.
“Try and put your words together in a way that they have not necessarily been put together before. Try to avoid clichés… try to avoid using phrases that every other writer that you've ever read has used, there are ways of constantly making your language more adventurous, more surprising.
“It's the element of surprise… as the readers are going along they will suddenly have their attention captured by a surprising image, a startling use of words. One of the ways that you can achieve this is by the principle of juxtaposition.
“If you put two words together that seem perhaps initially to be dissonant or discordant and not really to fit together, then you can create a kind of beautiful disfigurement.”
Using adventurous and unexpected language and phrasing can really help draw the reader into the world of a story.
Examples of juxtaposition
The best way to understand juxtaposition is to look at some examples.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” is probably one of the most famous opening lines of any novel. The opening of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities (1859) is powerful because of the stark differences between the words 'best/worst' and 'wisdom/foolishness'. It is interesting and intriguing, and it throws you straight into the action and grabs the attention of the reader from page one.
If you want to use juxtaposition to highlight a certain trait of a character in your story, you may consider adding a secondary character as a ‘foil’. A foil is a character who is presented as a contrast to the main character of a story.
Think of Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters - Cinderella is kind, considerate and beautiful, whereas her sisters are cruel, self-serving and physically unattractive. Or in M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable (2000) the central protagonist, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), can walk away from numerous life-threatening incidents completely unscathed, whereas the story’s antagonist, Mr Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), has a rare bone disorder that causes his bones to break and fracture at the slightest touch.
In his BBC Maestro course on storytelling, Alan Moore explains why juxtaposition works so well in comic books.
“One of the things that comics have is a visual track… static images. With a comic you can sit and ponder over the images and the words for as long as you want until you’ve absorbed them.”
“(As a writer) this gives you some fantastic opportunities - it gives you the opportunity to use the image track of comics to be telling a substantial part of the story, which will free up the verbal part (to) perhaps to talk about something else entirely.”
“You can tell another story in the verbal stuff which will create striking juxtapositions with the story that you’re telling in the images,” said Moore.
In a comic book you could have the juxtaposition of a violent fight scene combined with the most mundane of day-to-day conversations about the weather to create a scene that surprises the reader.
How to use juxtaposition in your writing
Think of one entity that has a characteristic you want to highlight - it might be a place, a person or an object. Then think of how you can introduce an opposing entity into the scene to highlight that original characteristic you want to draw attention to.
For example, if you want to describe the darkness of a forest, you could write ‘the darkness of the forest was blinding’. ‘Blinding’ is typically used to describe something bright, so this sentence feels unique and the contrast brings a sense of unease to set the scene.
Another example is a character who is painfully shy, especially in social situations. You could contrast her with another character who is the life and soul of the party. For example, ‘Jennifer watched quietly from the corner of the room as Sarah worked her way from person to person, laughing, dancing and joking with everyone’. The contrast between Jennifer’s introverted nature and Sarah’s extrovert characteristics are even starker because they are juxtaposed against one another.
In your own writing consider which elements you would most like to stand out, then try using juxtaposition to highlight them to your readers.
Interested in learning more about the art and craft of creative writing? At BBC Maestro we offer a range of online writing courses to help you polish up your writing skills, with classes from established authors including Lee Child, Malorie Blackman, Julia Donaldson and Alan Moore.