The Frankenstein Technique: How to Use Juxtaposition + Causality to Discover Deep Themes
The best stories are comprised of more than one thing. They're not only about a bank robbery or luck or the protagonist's relationship with their father. They have a ton of varying elements that bring them to life. They live in this gray area made up of seemingly unrelated thoughts and feelings and ideas and events (and desires and motivations and fears and... I could go on forever).
But when all these moving parts are taken together, considered as one, they make a cohesive story that feels like real life. We know an author has "done it" when they seem to have accurately captured reality, with all its various messy parts, and represented it on the page.
This is why sometimes it's difficult to describe what our favorite books are "about," because they're about so many different things—they're about life! The whole big, messy, gray-area of life we live in.
Recognizing this in a master writer's work is easy. Creating it in our own, however, is a easier said than done.
It's easy to feel stuck with a story, for a story to feel lifeless and boring, for the whole thing to feel forced. If you're trying to write "about" some big topic, you may have trouble getting it off the ground. The stories aren't interesting enough, complex enough, engaging enough. You might feel bored and worry if the whole story is a waste of time. You might even consider abandoning the story completely because it's just not working the way you want.
But these stories can get back on track. They just need something to spark the life back into them.
We all know the story of Frankenstein—the sewing of random pieces together to create a physical body and then shocking the monster to life. But what would happen if we Frankensteined our story?
How do you spark your story back to life?
I've got 3-step process for you that will breathe new life into your story. When you use the Frankenstein Technique to juxtapose something seemingly random into your current work-in-progress, use causality to make them inextricably linked, and then consider what effect that has on your subtext and theme, you will emerge with a stronger story that goes deeper and does it interesting ways.
Let's dive into the 3 steps!
Step #1: Juxtapose something interesting
Jonathan Lethem in the How Writers Write Fiction 2015 online course suggests the use of juxtaposition to reinvigorate the story and get the writer unstuck. Juxtaposition is when you take two or more separate, independent, unrelated things and force them into conversation with each other. It functions as a mini-collage of sorts, like sticking the different pieces of Frankenstein's body together to make the whole monster. Juxtaposition can introduce new ideas, create surprises, and cause new, unexpected things to arise. It will DEFINITELY move the story in a different direction.
This is an amazing technique that I have fallen head-over-heels in love with. I did this consciously with one story I was trying to write that was "about" first loves (and I was falling helplessly into Joy Katz's Cloud of Aboutness). The story was falling flat on its face. I was bored. The whole thing felt forced and shitty. In an unrelated part of my notebook, I had all this fantastic, concrete, detailed material about deer and hunting and the woods. So I stuck the two together, creating a "monster story" of deer and lovers. And oh-my-god did that story become interesting! There were so many different things going on, so many different pieces moving around and working with the other pieces. It was freaking cool. And most importantly, I was interested in my story again.
Juxtaposition isn't the only step to making a good story though. The difficulty with this is that you can't just put these two things next to each other and call it a day. The reader has to see that there is a reason for it being there, otherwise it will feel like a haphazard collage done by a six-year-old that doesn't make a bit of sense.
This leads us into step #2.
Step #2: Find Causality
Chekhov's Gun is a concept that requires every detail of your story to be absolutely necessary to the story. You shouldn't have random things in there that don't add up to something later on. Using his dramatic example, you can't wave a gun in the air screaming, "I have Chekhov's Gun!" and then never talk about it again. Remember, the stories we love feel seamless, everything feels like it's supposed to be there. We have to weave these contrasting pieces together so that they feel inextricably connected. They have to be fused together so the whole story feels natural and organic. Therefore, these varying pieces have to have reason and purpose for being there.
Lethem's next step is to find causality between the juxtaposed elements. Causality is the "because," the "why," the reasoning and purpose behind what's happening in your story. It is how you create seamless stories, because it shows that everything is meant to be there.
In my story, I can't just have a scene about a deer and then a scene about a first kiss. That would be weird and random. I had to fuse the two things together to highlight their differences, to contrast them in an interesting way, to force them to communicate with each other. This is done to allow the reader to see the overall meaning and themes of the story through the images and events I presented. So I connected each love-life event (first kiss, first boyfriend, losing virginity) with a deer-hunting event (witnessing a dead deer, hunting a deer, eating venison for dinner). The protagonist's present day situation—meeting her boyfriend's deer-hunting, gun-toting family—sparks a flashback of memories of her experiences, primarily lack-of-experiences, with the hunting world. Her present love-life event juxtaposed with deer and hunting causes her to confront her past love-life events juxtaposed with deer and hunting.
There's NO WAY I could separate these two ideas now. They're so linked together in my head that to take them apart would ruin the story completely.
Pro-Tip: Every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. It's Newton's Law. So, when merging your separate pieces together, make sure you consider the weight of each piece. In my story, if I arbitrarily put a deer crossing the road right next to the scene where my protagonist loses her virginity, there isn't enough weight to cause them to be inextricably linked. It won't make a big enough impact. If, however, I put the act of first shooting and killing a deer next to the scene where she loses her virginity, the comparison will be much stronger. Pay attention to your structure and plot, and if it's accurately pushing your story to the meaning you want.
After juxtaposing your pieces together and finding the causality that binds them, you should have a story that is walking and talking and fully alive. This is the lightning strike of electricity that brings Frankenstein's body to life. This is when your story really becomes a story.
But why the heck have you even written this story in the first place? What is this story's purpose? And what is the effect of your seemingly random juxtaposition? What does it mean?
Step #3: Understand what this means for your subtext and how it contributes to theme
In the beginning of things, when you're writing a story "about" something, it's not going to work. It's only after dealing with the concreteness and sparking new life into it that we can go back to the overarching "aboutness." We can consider its themes and meanings, the take-away points that make this story a story. We can find its subtext that leads us to the bigger ideas.
The subtext is the underlying themes of the story. It's hidden underneath the language, the words, the plot, but brings higher meaning to the piece as a whole. John McNally talks about the art of finding his subtext through revision. He explains, "If the story itself is a lake, then its subtext is the Loch Ness monster, dipping in and out, keeping mostly hidden, but sometimes rising up and scaring the bejesus out of you. Or sometimes the subtext is the main story’s doppelgänger: it looks like the main story, it has the same cast of characters, but it’s acting in peculiar ways, and (more frighteningly) it has its own agenda."
McNally, too, found that juxtaposing two elements together—in his case two whole stories—brought the truth of his story to life. He says:
"Side-by-side, I realized that the two stories were really talking to each other. One was succumbing to the darkness of his own life; the other was embracing the darkness. It wasn’t easy putting the two stories together: I had to cut a lot from each story, including some of my favorite passages, but it was necessary because these two stories were meant to be together. The realization that they belonged together was exciting—more exciting than any realization I’d had as a fiction writer up until that point. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein trying to patch together something living from something dead. And like Dr. Frankenstein, I had created something scarier than I had anticipated, something that took on a life separate from me, a story that began to tell me what it was all about rather than the other way around." - McNally
McNally's experience with fusing the stories together allowed him to realize what his story was all about.
Now that you've put two independent things together and fused them together, your story has a deeper meaning too.
You have no longer written a story "about" a topic, but the "about" still exists in it—it's just out of sight. If you look at what your juxtaposition highlights and causes to happen, it's created a theme, a subtext. Pay attention to what the images and scenes are showing you.
If you consider my story again, for example: Why deer and hunting? What is the effect of that juxtaposition? And why does it work for this story in particular?
The juxtaposition of this element means that I'm comparing love's big moments to shooting a deer. That's weird. The bridge that helps the reader understand the connection is that everything will change in a single moment and the protagonist doesn't have control over it. She realize her role in romantic relationships as a metaphorical deer, unable to control her love life, but conscious that everything will be totally different. The theme considers the "hunt" for love and how you change before and after a love-life event. It's asking questions about what happens to you when you fall in love or when someone holds your hand or kisses you for the first time. It's posing a curiosity to the deer's perspective and wondering what it means to be a hunter.
If I instead compared it to hiking in the woods or building a campfire, I'd have a totally different story with a totally different theme and subtext.
I could never have come right out and said these things boldly and declaratively—and I could never have actually sat down and written it—because it would've been boring. It would've been loud and cliched and sentimental. But that's what's going on in my story. It's the truth of it all. It's why I wanted to write it in the first place.
Find a story that you've been working on that's been giving you a lot of trouble. You know the one—the one that's flat and uninteresting and seems to not be going anywhere.
Infuse some new life into it by juxtaposing it with something totally unrelated. Juxtapose something completely unrelated with the topic you're trying to right about. Write it all out and Frankenstein them together so they're so side-by-side.
Make it cause interesting things to happen. The two elements should parallel each other in terms of weight and complexity, so be strategic with strengthening and weakening your comparison in certain parts of your story. Link every piece back to the story, too. Remember, every action should have an equal and opposite reaction. Make them inextricably linked.
Then, analyze it. If you were a reader, what would you interpret this juxtaposition to mean? What is the relationship between these two unrelated things? Why is this an effective way to explain the topic you're trying to talk about? What kind of subtext does this provide? How does it lead to theme?
Frankensteining your story via juxtaposition, causality, and subtext will give you a sense of playful discovery and take you to wonderful places. You'll emerge with a deeper, more interesting story than you could've imagined. And hopefully you'll get a bolt of lightening subtext that breathes a whole new life into your story.
Have you played with juxtaposition in your work before? How do you give your story more weight? Have you ever Frankensteined two stories together? How has it worked out for you?