Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.11: Turning Up the Contrast With Juxtaposition

Our deconstruction and categorization of tension continues this week with an exploration of Juxtaposition, which is a contrast between two elements that supplies tension by allowing the reader to insert themselves.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Try to add tension to a scene in your work-in-progress by inverting or juxtaposing elements.

Thing of the week: When Franny Stands Up, by Eden Robins —MRK.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Juxtaposition adds tension from the contrast between two things. Good news, bad news framing. Hallelujah moments in movies, with something horrible happening and beautiful music playing. Juxtaposition works with mood and emotion, instead of conflict. Horror often juxtaposes monsters and pastoral settings. Juxtaposition can add depth and context. It can add tension to a character. You can use it to show the reader how the character doesn’t fit, or that this person has hidden depths. Cozies juxtapose cozy elements with murder.

[Season 18, Episode 11]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Turning Up the Contrast With Juxtaposition.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] We are going to be talking about juxtaposition this week, and how to use it. I’m actually going to tell a personal story to kick us off, because the first time I taught this as a topic, I was at a conference and my phone rings and it is my husband. I’m like, “What’s going on?” He’s like, “Well, there’s been a family medical thing at home.” I’m like, “Oh. Okay.” He’s just updating me. Everything does turn out fine. It does have a happy ending. But I then had to go back into the room and teach. The thing is that this added a certain amount of tension to this thing. Because there was nothing that I could solve. I was in a different country. There was nothing that anyone in the room could solve, because they didn’t even know about it. But there was this juxtaposition between hello, I have to teach this class, and there’s this thing that’s going on at home. They’re two unrelated things. The tension comes from the contrast between those two things.

[Howard] A common example of this is the good news, bad news framing of things. Again, a real-life story. Sandra and I were at Gen Con, and we get a call from one of the kids who’s holding down the house. He says, “So, good news and bad news. Good news is I learned how to defrost the freezer.”


[Howard] “The bad news is I didn’t do it on purpose.”


[Howard] That juxtaposition right there has told us an entire story that we’re going to have fun unraveling. So I often think of juxtaposition first in terms of the good news, bad news. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the juxtaposition of the Steward of Gondor eating while the soldiers are going to war is completely different. That’s just bad news, bad news.


[Erin] I often think of the hallelujah moment, which is where something horrible is happening and a cover of Hallelujah plays in a movie.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Erin] If you ever hear Hallelujah playing, run. You know what I mean? Something bad is happening. But it’s something about the beauty of that song, or any sort of piece of music that is very beautiful, with something horrible happening underneath that’s [garbled]

[Howard] Ave Maria in Hitman.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The first time I saw that was in Good Morning Vietnam with It’s a Wonderful World… Or It’s a Beautiful World… Trees of green and like bombings are happening in the background. It can be overplayed. Because in… They tried to do that in Downtown Abbey, where it’s like, “Oh, look, the new baby…” This beautiful music is playing, and someone is having a car crash in the background. It fundamentally didn’t work because it was so clear that that was what they were trying to do.

[Dan] Yeah. Music is such a great way to do this. One of my very favorites is actually the finale of the first act of the Steven Sondheim musical Gypsy in which everything has gone wrong. The little sister has run away, and now the family isn’t going to travel around anymore. The older sister, she’s the main character, she thinks, “Oh, great. This is perfect. This is exactly what I want. Now I get to have a normal life with a normal mom and a normal dad.” Then the mom sings Everything’s Coming up Roses which is this huge triumphant don’t worry, we’re going to make this work, I’m going to make you a star. Which is 100% not what the main character wants out of her life. It is a triumphant and wonderful song juxtaposed against the absolute world crushing tragedy of what it means for this girl. It’s horrible and delicious and I love it when a story is able to do that.

[Mary Robinette] I think… You just reminded me of something that Erin had talked about previously, which is that the tension is coming from the emotion. I think that one of the things about juxtaposition is that it is so much about mood and emotion. Very specifically those things, rather than the conflict. An example that Howard gave previously was the eating of the food during the… Juxtaposed with the battle. That those two things spoke to each other, but that they were a contrast as well.

[Howard] When I teach my humor class, I talk about juxtaposition, but the sort… The kind that I use is what I call forced congruence. Which is when you juxtapose two things in such a way as to force them into congruence one with another. The example I use is from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “the Vogon ships hovered in the air in much the same way that bricks don’t.” Which is hilarious and it forces bricks hovering to be the same as the Vogon ships. Paints a very clear picture, and, for me, manages to be hilarious.

[DongWon] You also see this used to extremely great effect in horror. Again, I think horror and comedy are sort of two sides of the same coin. I’m really thinking about Bong Joon-ho’s movie The Host, which is one of my all-time favorite movies. The first time we see the monster is running along the banks of the Han River through this park area where people are picnicking, having a lovely time, it’s a lovely day. The grass is green. Then this monster comes bursting out of the Han River, causing chaos and mayhem. It’s a very visceral terrifying scene with this intruding thing into this very pastoral imaging. Throughout the entire thing, the visual thing that drives all of that is the juxtaposition of horror and this family pastoral thing, which ties into the theme of the whole movie as it is very much a family drama of a family trying to figure out how to come together in the face of tragedy in the middle of this apocalyptic thing happening in this major metropolitan area. He uses just… Bong Joon-ho, in particular, is so masterful at using juxtaposition to drive narrative throughout all of his movies.

[Erin] I think one of the things… Because sort of a lot of our examples are movies and our visual media because they have… There’s so many great tools of juxtaposition in terms of showing two images together or using music. I was thinking about what is a good textual… Another textual example. I recently reread The Ones Who Walked Away from Omalas. It starts with like the equivalent of a beautiful musical piece in describing this utopia in such lyrical… In such a lyrical way that it almost feels like you’re listening to music, which makes the juxtaposition with the reality of Omalas hit so hard. So it’s something you can do, like with text, as well as in a visual and sort of a medium that has sound besides.

[DongWon] Absolutely.

[Mary Robinette] I used it in Spare Man in what I will call the singing toilet scene. In which I have a conflict, straight up conflict, but it is happening in a bathroom that has singing toilets. It is one of my favorite things that I’ve ever written.

[DongWon] Well, I would argue that one of the driving impulses of the… Or one of the driving things about the book in general is that juxtaposition of the humorous surreality that is a cruise ship or a space liner in this one against this serious drama and murder and interpersonal drama. It… That tension between those two things, the discordance between the ridiculousness that is a cruise ship that all of us know very well versus a very serious thing happening, which… That is so much this like generative engine in the book. It’s like… It almost feels like a gear slipping, but you’re doing it on purpose. So we keep like running into it, and having to be like, “Wait. How does this work? Why is this like this? Oh, that is so weird that this murder is happening here, but also it’s so weird that this service person is talking to them in this way right now.”

[Howard] It calls back to anticipation, because if you are juxtaposing, especially if you are juxtaposing where there is a forced congruence happening. If one of the elements is one with which we’re familiar and we know how it unfolds, the juxtaposition forces us to anticipate what is going to happen with the second element. I don’t have a good example off the top of my head, but if you think of Beethoven’s… Is it the ninth that ends with the da da da da da da dat dah dah? And then the cannons?

[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeah.

[Howard] I think that’s… Is it the ninth or is that the third?

[Dan] The beginning, the 1812 overture.

[Howard] 1812 overture! It’s the overture. Okay. Thank you. Gah. Music major. They can have their degree back. Find.

[Mary Robinette] Juxtaposition is…

[Howard] [garbled]

[Mary Robinette] Happening in your brain right now.

[Howard] When you hear that ba ba ba… The next thing that’s going to happen is an explosion. If you’re watching a movie, something’s about to blow up. Because the forced congruence and the anticipation has told us what’s coming next.

[Mary Robinette] Well, what’s coming next right now is our thing of the week. Our thing of the week is When Franny Stands Up by Eden Robins. I loved this book a lot. It is set immediately or shortly after the end of World War II. It’s in the 1950s. Franny is a young Jewish woman and she wants to do stand up comedy. If you think that’s Marvelous Mrs. Mazel, this is not Marvelous Mrs. Mazel with magic. That’s not what this is. The only thing it has in common are the words that I have said thus far. It is a story about intergenerational trauma. It is a story about the search for comedy. It is also with… Has this wonderful magical element. It’s at the juxtaposition between stand up comedy and the very real PTSD that Franny’s brother is dealing with, that she herself is dealing with. Those two things play off each other so beautifully. It’s funny and it’s moving. I highly recommend When Franny Stands Up by Eden Robins.

[Dan] So can I talk about another example of juxtaposition? We have in our notes beautiful music playing over a fight scene. One of the ones that I love is in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. The opening stunt, the opening fight scene, they have the music Ain’t That a Kick in the Head, which I believe is a Dean Martin song. It’s very funny, ha ha, fight scene with this, but you realize very quickly that that music is diegetic, that music is happening inside of the story and all of the characters can hear it. It’s being broadcast over the PA during a prison break. So there is the juxtaposition of tone, but also we realize that the characters are using it as a countdown. So it becomes this form of creating tension in the story. What’s going to happen when we get to the end of that song? So it’s kind of adding two or three things at once, and doing them very effectively.

[Howard] The fourth thing that it’s doing is finally doing right what Hudson Hawk tried to do for the entire movie where the two of them are singing the same song in order to try and time their heist. But it was never as cool as it was in Mission Impossible 4.

[DongWon] One more thing I want to bring up in terms of juxtaposition is it is incredibly useful as a technique to add depth and context to a scene. I often talk about fiction and particularly novels as a layer cake. You want to add as many layers as you can to make sure that the reader’s getting the most amount of information as possible in a given moment. Right? So, going back to examples Erin used last time in terms of making sure there is tension rather than conflict, a way to add tension into opening with a fight scene, opening with an action scene, is you’re giving us flashbacks, you’re giving us different POVs, to tell us about the character and what they care about. If you start with a gun fight, and halfway through, you do a flashback to realizing that the main… The protagonist’s sister has been kidnapped and that’s what they’re trying to do, then that adds tension in a way that wouldn’t be there initially. So, using juxtaposition can add so much more meaning or depth. Also, like the Aldhani… Climactic Aldhani scenes in Andor is a great example because they’re cutting between this religious ceremony that’s happening by these colonized people and this heist for the revolution that is going to eventually free them. The tension between those two images is adding all this thematic and narrative depth that elevates what’s happening on the screen to a different level versus what we would have seen if it was just a heist happening in a vault.

[Dan] Well, if I add to that… I know, Erin, you want to say something. But, just before we leave Andor, one of the things I loved about the tension created in that juxtaposition at the end is that we know that all of the fallout and all of the consequences of this heist are going to fall on those indigenous people and not on our main characters. They’re the ones that the Empire is going to crack down on, they’re the ones that are going to have horrible consequences. So it adds this extra layer of really bitter tension to what’s going on. It drains all of the joy that we normally expect from a heist, and all of the triumph is completely gone, because we know that those people are going to suffer for it.

[Mary Robinette] Erin, what were you going to say?

[DongWon] But we also know that… Oh, sorry.

[Erin] No, no. Keep going. That’s fine.

[DongWon] But we also know though that this is the thing that is going to lead to their eventual liberation. This single act leads directly in a chain of events to the destruction of the Death Star and the fall of the Empire. Which is anticipation coming… Juxtaposition, anticipation, all these things are layered in there in this beautiful example. Anyways, we’ll stop talking about Andor now because we would do that for six hours.


[Erin] I was just going to say that in addition to adding tension to a scene, that juxtaposition can also add tension to a character. It’s a great way of signaling an unreliable narrator or a character that makes you feel weird in a bad way.


[Erin] Which is that, if someone, for example… If something really horrible is happening, but a character… Their interior thoughts about it are way off from what we think… They’re like, “Kicking puppies? Eh, fine.” That juxtaposition of our… What we believe would be the normal, or, like, within a set of reactions to a situation and what the character is experiencing, it can show things that are bad, things that are good, but I think it really adds some tension, because the next time you see this character, you’re not sure how they’re going to react to something, because they didn’t react in the way that you were anticipating that they might.

[DongWon] This is Javier Bardon calling people friendo in No Country for Old Men. Terrifying.


[Howard] The episode that kind of kicked all this off, we were talking about building a mystery, and then we’re talking about the tools of tension. Using juxtaposition late in a mystery where a small thing has the same shape as the solution to the puzzle. You juxtapose those things and the detective looks at the small thing and suddenly realizes, “[gasp] Aha! That’s the last piece that I need.” Even if those pieces aren’t related. That is a very common use of juxtaposition in mysteries.

[Dan] So, one way that I have used this, for example, in the John Cleaver books. In the first one, I Am Not a Serial Killer, I used this as a way of showing you how messed up John Cleaver is. This is a lot of what Erin was talking about, is, if we’re seeing somebody’s reactions are off. I went out of my way to include a lot of slice of life kind of moments. We get to see this kid on the first day of school. We get to see him at Halloween. We get to see him at Christmas. Every time, he is not reacting the way that we expect, and the kind of excitement that we would want to feel at those different moments. The cool high school dance that he gets to go to is this kind of nightmare for him. The Christmas party is just absolutely, kind of unbearably sad, because of the way that no one in the family gets along with each other. So providing those moments of resonance where we recognize what the character is going through, and it should feel one way, but it feels a different way, adds a lot of tension to a character.

[Mary Robinette] You can have that also in the positive, as well. If there’s a character who is slightly terrifying, but you actually want the reader to feel sympathy for them or to enjoy… To ultimately think of them as a good guy. Giving them something that they care about, like a Yorky or a teacup poodle, is a way to humanize them by providing that juxtaposition. It remind you that people are not mono-dimensional. The other thing that has occurred to me as we been talking is that this tool of juxtaposition is a key tool in cozy mysteries. That that’s one of the reasons that cozies work is because they are juxtaposing a British beautiful little country house with murder. Or baking with murder. That juxtaposition is, in fact, a key element of the cozies.

[Mary Robinette] Now, I’m afraid, we’re going to juxtapose your homework.

[Erin] Homework.

[Howard] They’ve been anticipating it.


[Erin] All right. For the homework this week, look at your work in progress and find a scene where you may want to add more tension, and add an element of juxtaposition to do that. Any sort of… Any of the ones that we’ve been talking about, but add some juxtaposition into your work in progress and ramp up that tension.

[Mary Robinette] You are out of excuses. Now go write.

[Behind you!]