We just finished watching The Bear on Disney+. It’s excellent. Full stop. It’s also a great illustration of a principle that we discussed in my recent online storytelling workshop: juxtaposition.
Having contrast in your story is often overlooked, but absolutely key. Basically, good stories contain contrasting elements.
The power of contrast in storytelling
In The Bear, one of the central tensions—and key narrative drivers—is the juxtaposition of protagonist Carmy (a classically trained chef who’s worked in some of the finest restaurants in the world) and his family’s decidedly downmarket beef sandwich restaurant in Chicago, which he’s recently inherited. That tension drives the story.
It reminded me of another great juxtaposition in storytelling. Ratatouille, the Pixar movie, goes the other way. It has a rat (yechh!) working in fine dining.
But not all examples of juxtaposition in storytelling are restaurant based.
Bad guys, good guys and simple desires
Think of an elegantly dressed James Bond getting involved in elaborate fistfights. Or Die Hard’s juxtaposition of the terrorist takeover with a joyful Christmas party, and John McClane’s heroism set against his real objective, reconciling with his estranged wife.
The epic adventure and sweeping battles of good vs. evil of Lord of the Rings is also a small-scale story about friendship. Breaking Bad juxtaposes Walter White’s increasingly violent descent into criminality with his family life. Etc.
Creating contrast in your personal storytelling
This idea of juxtaposition is just as important in personal storytelling. The tale of your biggest achievement needs to be balanced with, say, your feelings of doubt, or the setbacks you encountered along the way.
That hilarious tale of a job interview gone wrong needs a positive counterweight (like how you ended up getting the job, or successfully landed a more suitable role a week later). Make sure there are contrasts in your story.
Of course, the juxtaposition is just one element of what makes a good story, but it’s useful to understand how to use it. And then apply it to your storytelling.
It’s like how a great chef—rat or otherwise—uses seasoning.