Tag Archives: using polarity as a literary device

Employing polarity  #amwriting

When we have finished the first draft of our story and come back to revise it later, we find that in places, our characters seem two dimensional.

Certain passages stand out; the characters have life, intensity. Their emotions grab us, and we feel them come alive. We see them as sharply as the author intends.

In other passages, they are flat, lacking any sort of spark.

When we add contrast to the scenery – polarity – the setting comes alive. The imaginary world of the narrative becomes as real to the reader as the world of their living room.

The same is true for how we show our characters.

Word choice matters. How we phrase a passage makes an immersive experience or throws the reader out of the book.

Our goal is to make vivid sensory images for our readers.

John Keats used both polarities and similes in his work. The last stanza of To Autumn begins with this line:

“Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;”

We see one obvious polarity in that line, and one sneaky one:

  • Lives or dies is an obvious polarity.
  • Sinking implies heaviness, and he contrasted it with light wind; a less weighty, gentler sensory experience opposite the weight of sinking.

Characters grow more distinct when portrayed with subtle contrasts. We all know opposites attract; it’s a fundamental law of physics. Contrast – polarity – supplies a needed missing component of the narrative, giving the important elements strength.

Polarity gives your theme dimension. Remember, the theme is the backbone of your story, the thread that binds the disparate parts together. Great themes are often polarized: good vs. evil or love vs. hate.

Think about the theme we call the circle of life. This epic concept explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death. Within that larger motif, we find subthemes. For example, young vs. old is a common polarity with many opportunities for conflict. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.

Wealth vs. poverty offers an author the opportunity to delve into social issues and inequities. This polarity has great potential for conflict, which creates a deeper narrative.

What we must see beyond the obvious are the smaller, more subtle polarities we can instill into our work. Small, nearly subliminal conflicts support the main theme and add texture to the narrative.

  • Without injustice, there is no need for justice. Justice only exists because of injustice.
  • 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. The fundamental issue of trust adds drama to a plot and provides a logical way to underscore a larger theme.

Throughout the narrative, ease should be contrasted with difficulty. This is called pacing.

Many commonly used words have opposites, such as the word attractive, the opposite of which is repulsive. When you want to add texture to your narrative, look at how you could show the mood and the emotions of a scene by using antonyms, words with contrasting meanings.

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

Each polarity has many nuances. In daily life, cowardice is most often exhibited as a subtle, habitual evasion of the truth or as an avoidance mechanism. It can be shown in an act as mild as a fib. Or, it can be an event as large as an act of treason committed for personal gain.

Bravery can be as small as a person facing a silly fear, as large as a person not backing down when a strong personality attempts to assert authority over them, or as epic as a responder entering a burning building to rescue a victim.

When we have characters who contrast subtle acts of bravery with small acts of cowardice we add power to a scene.

In all its many forms, contrast is a catalyst for change when we wish to electrify an otherwise bland scene.

It’s the fertile soil from which conflict grows. Each small polarity pushes your characters a bit further and underscores your larger theme.

Here is a sample of words found in the “D” section of  the  Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. This small selection is filled with opposites that create powerful mental images:

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

Every time you employ polarities in your word selections, you show something about the world or a character without having to tell it.

You add a dimension of depth.

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 expensive. 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. This website is a free resource.

Opposites add dimension and rhythm to our work. Polarity is an essential tool of world building.

Polarities, words that show contrast add dimension to an otherwise flat depiction, showing a written world that is as clear to the reader as the room they inhabit.

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