Scoops of chocolate, vanilla, and french vanilla ice cream in a glass with a cone on top of the french vanilla scoop to illustrate a juxtaposition.

Dance of Contrasts: Using Juxtaposition to Wow Your Readers

My husband and I have spent the past three months learning the tango, rumba, and east-coast swing. Our first few lessons were brutal. My husband and I grew up as metalheads, and headbanging to power chords is very different from a rumba box step, or tango corté. We couldn’t find the beat, stepped on each other’s toes, and had to constantly start over. We almost quit. Then it came to me. We needed to create a juxtaposition.

What if we danced these ballroom figures to heavy metal?

A surge of delight rushed through me as I mashed these genres together. It also taught me two important writing-related lessons.

First, it’s important to do it your way.

Yes, there are storytelling rules to learn and methods to try that can help you tell your best story, but as you practice these skills, don’t be afraid to go rogue by tweaking strategies so they align with your creative process.

Second, mashups and juxtapositions make life and writing more fun. 

There’s an entire novel subgenre devoted to mashups. Click here to read a few titles. My favorites include Alice in ZombielandPride, Prejudice, and Zombies; and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Even if you’d never read these books, notice how you feel while reading these titles. Does something in you perk up? 

If it did, you just felt the power of juxtapositions. This is something you can take advantage of in your writing projects. 

Think about the very sad funeral scene in most grief memoirs. Sadness is expected. Capturing this heartache well might make your reader feel understood, but a juxtaposition can up the ante by making them feel both seen and delighted. It could also result in insights that help you see this situation in a new way.

In Ross Gay’s essay collection Inciting Joy, the second incitement is about the death of Ross’s father. The essay includes the plot points you’d expect to see, including the tragic diagnosis, the son’s efforts to help, the father’s eventual decline, and a final day that will have you sobbing. Everything is set up to land on a heart-wrenching moment of deep pain, but, instead, he closes with this:

“And with my forehead pressed into his, and my hands on his cheeks, I noticed that my father had freckles sprinkled around the bridge of his nose and his upper cheeks. It was like a gentle broadcast of carrot seeds blending into his skin, flickering visible from this distance. It was through my tears I saw my father was a garden. Or the two of us, or the all-of-us, not here long maybe it is. And from that what might grow.”

A father as a garden. Freckles as carrot seeds. Death as an opportunity for growth. So many juxtapositions in just eighty-one words.

Abigail Thomas does something similar in “Something Valuable Given Away on the Street” from her memoir Safekeeping when she juxtaposes fresh baked bread with how middle-aged women become invisible. She could’ve used this setup to end on the yearning for youth which time has given away, but she gives up the need for the male gaze instead and ends by thinking about how she’ll see those the world looks past.

“Life is so sweet… She will have to tell her class. Make up an assignment in which something valuable is given away on the street. What will they come up with, she wonders, wanting to know.”

A friend of mine says life is a mystery to be lived. Juxtapositions and mashups help us lean into this mystery by opening our eyes to the fresh and new.

Here are a few exercises to help you experiment with juxtapositions:

  • Click here to complete Christopher McKitterick’s fantastic juxtaposition exercise.
  • Complete Abigail Thomas’s exercise: write about something valuable that was given away on the street. What do you come up with?

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