Episode 193: The best of times. The Worst of times. Classic.

On July 23, 2022, Kasie and Rex continued their travel through literary devices with juxtaposition and flashbacks. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Flashback and Juxtaposition

Agenda

  • SCWA’s Annual Conference open for registration
  • Flashback – as exposition delivery device
  • Juxtaposition – as theme/motif/symbolism device
Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

Segment 1

Last week we continued our work with literary devices working on themes and their workhorses: symbolism and motifs. This week we’re looking at flashback and juxtaposition. Juxtaposition – is another theme workhorse so in the interest of continuity for our binge-listeners, we’ll start there. 

Juxtaposition

What is juxtaposition and why should you use it? Not exclusively a literary term, juxtaposition means to put two or more things close together to demonstrate the contrasts between them. 

Grammarly provides this guidance on when to use it:

  • Strengthen an argument
  • Create an emotional response
  • Add deeper meaning.

Sufficiently vague? I thought so, too. Some juxtapositions are antithesis – “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” or a deafening silence, a sweet sorrow (also oxymorons, btw). Sometimes they’re a clever way to explain or insult; in Hogfather, Terry Pratchett writes the line, “Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time.” Or, Tolstoy’s classic “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Anna Karenina.

Types of juxtaposition (this link):

  • The foil – characters juxtaposed to demonstrate the extreme traits of one another
  • Antithesis – the complete opposite of one another to help define something – by what it’s not
  • Oxymoron – deafening silence, alone together
  • Dissonance – a clashing juxtaposition between disharmonious things (A Clockwork Orange scene of violence with “Singing in the Rain” playing)

Some juxtaposition is scene-level. Grammarly’s example is the stark poverty of District 12 contrasted with the ridiculous wealth of the capital. 

Some juxtaposition is in the characters. Elphaba, the “witch” of the west and Galinda, the “good” witch. Pride and Prejudice contrasts Mr. Darcy’s noble behavior with the selfish and scandalous Mr. Wickham.

Some juxtaposition is in the speech people/characters use – “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

We aren’t going to work with hyperbole as a literary device, but we can find frequent abuses of juxtaposition bloody with hyperbole – everyone is some kind of Nazi these days. Contrasting a person or an idea with its extreme opposite is a popular way to argue in modern discourse.

Segment 2

The SCWA’s annual conference is open for registration at myscwa.org. What do you get at SCWA’s Fall Conference? 

  • Keynote and workshop from author, cultural critic, and book editor Leigh Stein whose Twitter account is on fire as she examines exactly what social media is doing to us as individuals and collectively. 
  • The youngest and first black female poet laureate in Alabama history, Ashley M. Jones keynotes and teaches a workshop. 
  • Not one, but TWO literary agents will give keynotes as well so all those “How do I get an agent?” questions will be answered. 

The conference is at Pawley’s Island at the beach so that might be reason enough. It’s October 21-23 and more faculty and details can be found here.

For those of you who are travel shy or just prefer to learn from the comfort of your own home, SCWA is offering a virtual option as well. It’s not the same conference, but it does feature some of our faculty from the IRL version. Check out the virtual conference – it’s a cheaper option. October 7-9 featuring Hub City’s Meg Reid, agent Michaela Whatnall, editor Katoya Ellis Fleming, and many more.

Some classic uses of juxtaposition:

  • Night and day
  • Good and evil
  • Justice and revenge
  • War and peace
  • Humanity and technology
  • Vice and virtue
  • Family and outsiders

When have you used it in your work? Why?

What are some favorite stories that use juxtaposition?

Is juxtaposition just about differences? Or are there cases where it’s used to demonstrate similarities?

Sometimes juxtaposition makes the reader laugh, helps the reader see things in a more complex way, or teaches a lesson about one thing being better than another (link).

Examples:

  • the tortoise and the hare
  • All the Light We Cannot See – blind French girl and a German soldier 
  • The Light Between Oceans – a childless couple is responsible for a lighthouse operation, finds a child and decides to keep it
  • The Great Gatsby – Tom Buchanan (wealthy, privileged) vs. George Wilson (mechanic, honest)
  • Star Wars – the force has its its dark side (corrosive, angry)
  • Hamlet – Claudius, in marrying Gertrude, compares the funeral and the wedding 

Segment 3

Okay, so if we’ve beaten juxtaposition into submission … Let’s talk about those literary devices that are used to deliver exposition. 

Flashbacks are when the story departs from its current timeline to show a scene from before. It happens in movies a lot where we begin in media res and then get the “three weeks ago” subtitle to indicate we’re traveling back in time before the dinosaurs were here, the meteor had crashed, the president had been shot.

Here are two reasons you should use flashbacks (link):

Make a promise to the reader – you’re going to show us how we got here. Maybe not all at once, but the flashback promises the reader than questions will be answered.

Reveal backstory that puts what’s currently happening in context – if you’re wondering why she’s aiming that gun at her father, why he’s eating the hot dogs as fast as he can, or why the kid is driving the tractor trailer, don’t worry, we’re about to explain.

KM Weiland (who we’ve used before) suggests some types of flashbacks:

  • Brief – in summary such as, “Two years earlier, she’d seen the violence he was capable of when he’d seized a bar patron and hauled him to the door before throwing the man out into the snow.”
  • Lengthy – a dramatized scene that recalls the action and the dialogue of the memory, “The bar had stilled so only the jukebox made a sound as he grabbed the man by the scruff and led him to the door. With a shove, he toppled the man to the sidewalk, a puddle of wet snow splashing beneath him. ‘And stay out!’ he growled.”
  • In dialogue – when a character recounts the memory to another, through a story or small statements. This is one to be careful with as most people don’t monologue and delivering exposition through dialogue often means we’re letting our characters monologue.

Weiland also reminds us that flashbacks only work if:

  • The character has an interesting backstory
  • The backstory moves the plot forward

The very act of the character remembering this thing from before must provide some forward momentum for the plot. 

Segment 4

So how do you do it? 

Four ways (link):

  1. Use a verb tense shift – past perfect is made for this. “He had grown up on Tatooine, a desert planet with two suns. His uncle and aunt raised him and he had been well cared for.” This signals we’re now moving from current action into Tatooine and some kind of childhood home experience.
  2. Keep the flashback relevant – adjacent to, informative of the present story or you’ll lose your reader wondering “what the heck does this have to do with anything?”
  3. The whole book is a flashback? – this frame technique works when the character’s arc needs introspection; what does the character think about the events now? The Orphan’s Tale follows two women in a traveling circus during WWII. In the opening frame of the bok, one of them has survived and is expected onstage to tell her story. We don’t know, until the end, which of the two survived. The Book Thief makes use of this technique, too, it’s one long memory from the narrator, Death.
  4. Tell the present story first – it’s the more compelling, right? So focus on the present story and write it in a linear way and then decide where and when you need exposition and whether you’ll use a flashback to insert it.

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