An overview of contrast in writing

Contrast is a rhetorical device a writer uses to emphasize the differences between two people, places, or things. At its most straightforward, contrast is the opposition between to objects, with their differences highlighted and explained.

The word contrast comes from the Latin word “contra stare,” meaning “to stand against.” A side-by-side contrast between two words is known as a juxtaposition when two opposite words are put together, like in the phrases “bittersweet” and “alone together,” this is called an oxymoron.

Contrast can be very useful in all forms of writing, from the persuasive essay, where we are arguing for or against a point, to creative writing, where we might want to use contrast to make a metaphor.

A writer might highlight the contrast with a conjunction or connecting phrase like but, yet, however, instead, in contrast, nevertheless, on the contrary, or unlike. So, for example, you could write, “Unlike his big brother, Kevin didn’t like school.”

What is the function of contrast in writing?

The main purpose of contrast is to underline ideas and explain their meanings, so readers can easily follow a story or argument. In addition, through opposite and contrasting views, writers strengthen their opinions, making them more memorable for readers due to the emphasis placed on them.

Contrasting ideas can also entertain. It can shock the audience, heighten the drama, and produce a balanced story structure. For example, in the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, the contrast between the houses creates a satisfying system that is easy for the children to follow.

Examples of novels known for using contrast include Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and Harry Potter. Both books use characters that represent good and evil as their main contrast.

Types of contrast

Point-by-point Contrast

In this type of contrast, writers deal with a series of features within two subjects and then present the difference by discussing all the points in order.

Subject-by-subject contrast

Here, a writer discusses one subject thoroughly and then moves on to another.

Let’s take the example of a polar bear and a penguin.

To describe how these two animals are different, you could first talk about the features of a polar bear and then talk about the characteristics of a penguin. Or, you could structure your argument by talking about physical differences, then moving on to where they live, what they eat, how they act, etc.

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