Using polarity in literature #amwriting

We all know opposites attract—it seems to be a fundamental law of physics. It is as if the one end of the magnetic spectrum supplies a needed missing element for the other, something they can’t resist.

In literature, polarity gives your theme dimension. Remember, the theme is the backbone of your story, the thread that runs though it and connects the disparate parts. Themes are often polarized: One obvious polarity in literature is good vs. evil. Another is love vs. hate.

The circle of life explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death. Young vs. old is a common polarity—many times we find opportunities for conflict within the family. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.

Wealth vs. poverty offers the opportunity to delve into social issues and inequities.

But looking beyond the obvious are the subtle polarities we can instill into our work, the small subliminal conflicts that support the theme and add texture to the narrative.

Consider justice. Without injustice, there is no need for justice. Justice only exists because of injustice.

Or pain–the absence of pain, emotional or physical, is only understood when someone has suffered pain. Until we have felt severe pain, we don’t even think about the lack of it. In literature, emotional pain can be a thread adding dimension to an otherwise stale relationship.

Truth and falsehood (reality/unreality) go a long way toward adding drama to a plot and provide a logical way to underscore the larger theme.

Ease should be framed with difficulty.

Many commonly used words have opposites, such as the word attractive, the opposite of which is repulsive. When you really want to add texture to your narrative, look at how you could apply the ideas generated by your list of antonyms, words with the opposite meanings.

Think about how some of the concepts of the more common “D” words with opposites could be used to good effect:

  • dangerous – safe
  • dark – light
  • decline – accept
  • deep – shallow
  • definite – indefinite
  • demand – supply
  • despair – hope
  • discourage – encourage
  • dreary – cheerful
  • dull – bright, shiny
  • dusk – dawn

I love and regularly use the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms to spur my creativity. It can be purchased in paperback, so it’s not too spendy. Often you can find these sorts of reference books second hand.

The internet is also your friend. A large, comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. If you don’t have the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and are feeling the financial pinch most authors feel, this is a free resource.

Applied with a deft hand, opposites add dimension and rhythm to our work. Polarity is an essential tool of world building, as small polarities in the interactions your characters have with each other add to the atmosphere and serve to show their world in subtle ways.

  • courage – cowardice
  • create – destroy
  • crooked – straight/honorable
  • cruel – kind

What polarities can you use to your advantage in your current work in progress? When inserted unobtrusively they become invisible, an organic part of the larger picture. Yet, each small polarity will create a little conflict, push your characters a bit further, and underscore your larger theme.

These are just a few ideas and thoughts to help you jump start your work, if you’re a little stranded. Happy writing!


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14 responses to “Using polarity in literature #amwriting

  1. Reblogged this on Writing, events, competitions and even some self-penned bits and commented:
    It may seem obvious but this topic remains in the background and is dragged from the shadows very well here

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As a scientist now into creative writing I’m intrigued by this, your post a catalyst for me to review my ongoing writing with regard not just to polarity but also polarisability – in a way an induction of change through proximity, a consequences of forces, energy, some subtle, some strong – a change of state, disturbed equilibrium, reversible – irreversible … the principles, the consequences, once a way of life for me, the essence of physical chemistry I now see can be readily applied creatively – to my take on relationships expressed through prose and poetry. Thank you, I’m really quite excited by the possibilities … Eric.

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  3. Order and chaos are a good pair as well, especially because both can be seen in opposite ways, i.e., order can be boring and chaos exciting; on the other hand, order is constructive, chaos destructive.

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