The Unity of Opposites

21 Sep

by Julie Eshbaugh

Conflict! What is a story without it?  But despite the fact that we all know the value of conflict, striking the perfect balance of opposing forces isn’t always as easy as a writer might like it to be.  But have no fear!  The principle of the unity of opposites is an amazing tool to have at your disposal when testing out a new premise or drawing up a new outline.

So what is the unity of opposites?

Imagine a Philadelphia couple walking into Citizens Bank Park to cheer on the hometown favorites, the Philadelphia Phillies.  They are both dressed in Phillies T-shirts and ball caps.  When they reach their row, they find that the neighboring seats are occupied by a couple dressed in T-shirts and caps declaring their support of the opposing team, the Atlanta Braves.

An argument ensues.  The argument escalates to insults, taunting, and eventually shoving and swearing.  Finally, a punch is thrown.  Soon the two couples are engaged in a near brawl.

Is this conflict an example of the unity of opposites?  No, because although the two couples, when it comes to baseball, may be opposites, they have no unity.  Nothing binds them to each other in a way that would prevent the more civil couple from simply brushing themselves off and walking away.  In other words, this is not a case of a conflict where only one party can win.  If one couple walks away, no one has really lost, and in fact, no one has truly won.

Now imagine if the two couples, instead of brawling, make a bet.  Say each couple takes out a hundred dollars and puts it on the wager, winner take all.  Now imagine further that the Atlanta couple splurged on their trip to the game and under-budgeted for expenses, and this very hundred dollars which they are betting was wired to them this morning by the wife’s overbearing and unforgiving father, for the express purpose of paying for gas for the drive back to Atlanta.  Add to the story that our couple from Philadelphia both are compulsive gamblers, and this hundred dollars that they are betting is owed to a dangerous loan shark.

Now there is a unity of opposites, because one cannot win without the other losing.  The conflict cannot be abandoned without one party accepting defeat.

The unity of opposites is not essential to conflict, but without it, there is always a danger that a character might give in or give up without seeing the conflict through.  Worse yet, the reader may wonder why a character continues in a conflict when walking away might be far more rational or advantageous.  A unity of opposites ensures that the characters cannot walk away.

Sometimes the unity of opposites involves a matter of life and death.  In The Hunger Games, only one tribute can live.  Compromise is impossible, since the tributes are united in their mutual goal to kill each other.  No one can win unless all the others lose.

A unity of opposites can exist without mortal death being the consequence of failure, of course.  Death of an important character trait or valued conviction can be a painful consequence to the loser.  An example of this type of unity of opposites can be found in Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are bound together by their mutual attraction, but conflict exists because both of them are unwilling to compromise their proud and judgmental attitudes for the sake of the other.  Neither can “win” without there being a “death” to an essential characteristic of the other.  Likewise, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, though bound by their feelings for each other, the lovers are at conflict because they belong to opposing families.  Their love forms the unity; their family connections make them opposites.  Despite the efforts of both to overcome the power of the conflict between the families, eventually it is his loyalty to the Montague clan that leads Romeo to kill Juliet’s cousin.  The unity that binds Romeo and Juliet puts them in the perfect position to fall victim to the force of conflict between the opposites, a force which drives the characters to their tragic ends.

The idea of the unity of opposites is at its best when the protagonist and antagonist want the exact same thing in a story.  Some refer to this as perfect unity of opposites.

For example, in Romancing the Stone, the protagonist, antagonist, and villain all chase after the same precious emerald.  Indiana Jones and the Nazi officer are both pursuing the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The most perfect character triangle occurs when two characters are both set on the same third character as an object of their love.

The unity of opposites can be a fantastic tool, because it ties the protagonist and the antagonist together.  If you invent it effectively, it prevents one or the other from simply admitting satisfaction and walking away from the story, because neither can win without the other losing.

Can you think of other good examples of the unity of opposites?  Does the unity of opposites appear in your own writing?

Disclaimer:  Although the author of this post is a devoted Phillies fan who will be at Citizens Bank Park to see the Phillies take on the Braves on the evening this post appears, she has never gotten into a brawl or made any sort of wager with fans of opposing teams.  Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.




Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. You can follow her on LiveJournal here and on Twitter here.



18 Responses to “The Unity of Opposites”

  1. Meagan Spooner September 21, 2010 at 3:45 AM #

    This is really useful, and fascinating to boot. I love the theory behind story craft, and articulating the things that aspiring writers often do on instinct without realizing it. (Or, more often–things we SHOULD be doing, but haven’t quite mastered yet!)

    Romance seems like a genre perfectly suited to illustrating this concept. You mentioned Pride and Prejudice–similarly, the two main characters in a romance are bound by mutual attraction, but there are always conflicts in the way that seem, through the book, to be unresolvable. No way for them to be together without someone “losing,” depending on the circumstances of the romance. Even better when the plots involve rival love interests and triangles.

    It seems like the fun (and tricky) part as a writer in introducing this balance of opposing forces is A) keeping it from being a stagnant stalemate, and B) resolving it in the end without the solution seeming easy or pat. The neatest solution is not always the most believable.

    Great post!

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 21, 2010 at 9:10 AM #

      Hey Meagan! Great to have your comments! I like how you say “things we SHOULD be doing” because I, myself, am now going back over my current revision of FIREFLY and looking for a way to employ the unity of opposites more effectively. Creating posts for LTWF helps to remind me of what distinguishes the most compelling stories! 🙂 I also wholly agree with what you say about a “pat” resolution. That’s why I think the cost to all characters involved must equal a sort of “death” to something essential about them. Thanks for your comment!

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 21, 2010 at 10:07 AM #

      Oh! Replied to your comment and forgot to include my congrats for placing in Natalie Fischer’s Horrendously Hilarious Query Contest! Nice work!

      • Meagan Spooner September 21, 2010 at 7:33 PM #

        Hee, thank you so much! I’m pretty psyched about it. What better way to craft a query letter that appeals to an agent than to have said agent actually critique it for you?

  2. authorguy September 21, 2010 at 6:35 AM #

    An even more perfect triangle is when two are in love with the same third party, and the third party is in love with both of them in return. Like in The Accidental Husband. I’m sure there are other examples but that’s the first one I could dredge up.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 21, 2010 at 9:13 AM #

      Great point Marc! I’ve never read TAH but I read THE PILOT’S WIFE. It contained a similar dilemma, which made it difficult to despise any of the members of the love triangle, since all the relationships seemed valid. I really enjoy a story that has no clear “villian.” 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  3. Amie Kaufman September 21, 2010 at 8:06 AM #

    What a thought provoking post. I think when this is done really well, one of the things that’s so tough about it is that while one can’t win without the other losing, you don’t necessarily want anyone to lose. Hunger Games does this beautifully, and heartbreakingly!

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 21, 2010 at 9:18 AM #

      THG is a great example of the unity of opposites, on so many levels. The books also served as excellent examples when I drafted my Hero’s Journey post. It’s amazing. I LOVED the trilogy, but the closer I examine it, the more I see how well crafted the books are. Suzanne Collins gives me something to aspire to! Thanks for commenting Amie!

  4. Chantal September 21, 2010 at 9:22 AM #

    Really interesting post. Gives writers lots to think about when they’re creating their stories 😀

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 21, 2010 at 9:43 AM #

      Thanks Chantal! The unity of opposites is a nice tool when crafting a new idea. I have a few ideas tumbling around my head right now, and so I’m testing their relative strength by looking for the unity of opposites. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Savannah J. Foley September 21, 2010 at 12:11 PM #

    Harry Potter. 🙂

    • tymcon September 21, 2010 at 12:41 PM #

      Neithe rcan live while the other survives? I could ave that wrongXD

      • Julie Eshbaugh September 21, 2010 at 2:22 PM #

        If you have it wrong, so do I! I do think that’s the unity of opposites, HP style. 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 21, 2010 at 2:20 PM #

      Wow, great example Savannah! I can’t believe that one didn’t jump out at me. Thanks for the contribution! 🙂

  6. Vee September 22, 2010 at 3:11 AM #

    Ooh, great post Julie! Lots of food for thought 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 22, 2010 at 9:31 AM #

      Thanks Vee! I have to say, my posts are usually aimed at being self-educational; I pretty much pick a subject I need to focus on more myself. So if you ever see a post from me about “Why you should consider quitting because this writing thing is never going to work out,” you and the other LTWFers might want to plan an intervention. 😉 Thanks for the comment. I’m on my way to read your post right now!

  7. Jess September 22, 2010 at 11:00 AM #

    Love the UOO concept.

    So when you have a black eye at lunch tomorrow I’ll refrain from commenting, is that what you’re trying to tell me?

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 22, 2010 at 12:53 PM #

      Hahaha! I’ll have you know that everything was very civil at the game last night! (There was only one Atlanta fan in our section, and everyone treated him quite well, especially considering the Phillies maintained the lead from very early on. ;))

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