Put odd and interesting things next to each other.
At its best, the study of literature helps us understand what Frank Smith describes as the "grammar of stories." Such was the case upon my first encounter with Emma Bovary, the provincial French heroine with the tragically romantic imagination. I remember my amazement at reading the scene in which author Gustave Flaubert describes the seduction of the married and bored Madame Bovary by the cad Rodolphe Boulanger. The setting is an agricultural fair. In a scene both poignant and hilarious, Flaubert switches from the flirtatious language of the lover to the calls of animal husbandry in the background.
I remember it as a back-and-forth between such language as "I tried to make myself leave a thousand times, but still I followed you" and the sounds of "Manure for sale!"
Or "I will have a place in your thoughts and your life, won't I?" with "Here's the prize for the best pigs!"
Back and forth, back and forth, the juxtaposition exposing to the reader, but not to Emma, Rodolphe's true motives. "Ironic juxtaposition" is the fancy term for what happens when two disparate things are placed side by side, one commenting upon the other.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky,
Like a patient etherized upon a table…
So begins "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a poem in which T.S. Eliot juxtaposes the romantic image of the evening sky with the sickly metaphor of anesthesia. The tension between those images sets the tone for everything that follows.
Eliot died in 1965, my junior year in Catholic high school, and a group of us celebrated the event by naming our rock band after the poet. We were called "T.S. and the Eliots," and our motto was "Music with Soul."
The coupling of unlikely elements is often the occasion for humor, broad and subtle. In "The Producers," for example, Mel Brooks creates a musical called "Springtime for Hitler," starring a hippy Führer, and featuring June Taylor-style dancers who form the image of a swastika.
Moving from the grotesquely comic to the deadly serious, consider this introduction to The Philadelphia Inquirer's story of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island:
4:07 a.m. March 28, 1979.
Two pumps fail. Nine seconds later, 69 boron rods smash down into the hot core of unit two, a nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island. The rods work. Fission in the reactor stops.
But it is already too late.
What will become America's worst commercial nuclear disaster has begun.
What follows is a catalog of all the terrible truths that officials will learn, along with some of the harrowing details: "Nuclear workers playing Frisbee outside a plant gate because they were locked out, but not warned of the radiation beaming from the plant's walls ... "
The suspense that builds from those first short sentences reaches a peak when the high technology of the failed nuclear reactor produces radiation that bombards workers playing Frisbee. Radiation meets Frisbee. Ironic juxtaposition.
Dramatic tension does not have to be so monumental. Consider the story William Serrin wrote for The New York Times about the first woman killed in an underground mine disaster in the United States:
What he would not forget, after he had left the hospital where she lay, still in her sweatshirt and long underwear and coveralls, on an emergency room cart, was that there was nothing to suggest she was dead.
All he could see was a trickle of blood from her left temple.
Her face, like all coal miners' faces, was black with coal. But her hands had been covered with gloves. And, as she lay on the hospital cart, the gloves removed, her hands were as white as snow.
Her face black as coal, her hands white as snow.
In some cases, the effect of ironic juxtaposition can be accomplished by a few words embedded in a narrative. The narrator of the dark crime novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" lays out the plot to murder his girlfriend's husband:
We played it just like we would tell it. It was about ten o'clock at night, and we had closed up, and the Greek was in the bathroom, putting on his Saturday night wash. I was to take the water up to my room, get ready to shave, and then remember I had left the car out. I was to go outside, and stand by to give her one on the horn if somebody came. She was to wait 'til she heard him in the tub, go in for a towel, and clip him from behind with a blackjack I had made for her out of a sugar bag with ball bearings wadded down in the end.
James M. Cain creates a double effect in this passage, placing the innocent 'sugar bag' between the mechanical 'ball bearings' and the criminal instrument 'blackjack.' A sack for sugar loses its sweetness when converted to a murder weapon.
- Feature photographers often see startling visual details in juxtaposition: the street person wearing a corsage, the massive sumo wrestler holding a tiny child. Keep your eyes open for such visual images and imagine how you would represent them in your writing.
- Re-read some of your own stories to see if there are ironic juxtapositions hiding inside of them. Are there ways to revise your stories to take better advantage of these moments?
- Now that you have a name for this technique, you will begin to recognize its use more often in literature, theater, movies, music, and journalism. Make a mental note of such examples. And keep your eyes open for them in real life as you report your stories.