Why is it that I learn so much more about writing from watching TV than I do when I read? It has me stumped. I figure it’s because I’m not a classically trained writer. Like most things I’ve learnt over my life, creative writing has been a haphazard approach, an ongoing process of DIY mixed in with a few courses. I guess my fine art training helps me use the right side of my brain more to learn. When I see visually – I understand better. Occasionally, I watch a show and have a eureka moment. This is one such case.
The art of juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is a term I grabbed from my time in the fine art field. It refers to placing two items or images next to each other for a bigger contrast or comparison. I’m using it here, because I’ve had more art training than writing and it’s the only term I can think of to explain what I mean. Better equipped writers may have the correct literary term, so please, if you do – comment below.
An example of juxtaposition in art
My favourite street artist Bansky is the King of juxtaposition. He is known to swap out the standard item you might expect to see in an image for something quite the opposite. The result is thought-provoking and resonates for a long time. See the image for clarity.
How Banshee juxtaposed
Yes, it sounds like a 90’s rap group, but Banshee have juxtaposed beautifully in episode 3, series 3.
Here’s the rundown: There are two seemingly equally matched characters having a fight off. One male (Burton) and one female (Nola). They fight brutally on equal footing for a while, and the viewer isn’t really transported – not yet. Do we care who wins? They both seem like baddies, whatever right?
Now I don’t know how a TV show is written, this scene could be the brainchild of the director, the writer, a choreographer, or all of the above, but what happened next, amazed me. Timed beautifully, you see each fighter in a position of power or weakness, one holding the other down, bloody faced and choking or vice versa. Each time you see this play for power, you see visuals from the past that correspond with that feeling. I interpreted these montage cuts as the fighter’s lowest point in their life. Nola remembers herself overdosing on heroin, Burton remembers his father brutally abusing him as a young man. But you still don’t know who is winning, they are still equal, the fight is anyone’s game. Then you get it. In Nola’s flashback, she wanted to die and be left alone, the only reason she survived is because someone else carried her junkie self out of the dingy bedroom. In Burton’s memory, he took matters into his own hands, he killed his violent father – saving himself. Can you guess who ended up winning the fight? Burton.
Here is a link to the video – Warning – it’s very violent, bloody and graphic. If you skip to around the 2 and a half-minute mark, you can see the flashback scenes.
So they juxtaposed here by flashing back to a moment that mattered to each fighter. It gave us an inside view of their motivation, their self-worth and determination. We would never have cared who won or lost if we didn’t get that insight. We would never have really understood what that fight meant – what living meant – to either one of them.
How can a writer use this technique?
- Use this flashback technique in a highly emotional scene – even save it for your life or death situations. At the point of no return, when the protagonist has to decide to give up or keep going, have them remember a time they thought was their darkest moment until now. How did they keep going on after that, what motivated them. A reminder of their will to live could be what they need to carry on now. This is a great way to fit in back story into the action.
- Use it in your characterisation – Think of the Banksy picture above. Have an archetype character have a quirk that seems completely opposite, but could possibly make you think harder about the situation. For example, a butcher who arranges flowers in his spare time, or a reluctant hitman who volunteers at the local hospital.