Narrative Oppositions

Firstly, what are narrative oppositions? These are certain words – they can be nouns, adjectives etc - that crop up within descriptive passages, but are actually opposite it their meaning. In other words, the writer is trying to describe a scene and inadvertently ends up using pairs of words that mean opposite things.

This is not uncommon because many writers misunderstand the meaning of some words and therefore group them together. For instance, ‘foreboding’ and ‘forbidding’ mean different things but are often wrongly used together when trying to create tension and atmosphere within a scene. For instance:

The house had a cold, foreboding appearance, forbidding in the dark...’

Forbidding means ‘repellent, stern’. Foreboding means bad omen, an expectation’ of trouble or evil.’

Another often seen example is sob and wail.

‘She sobbed into her hands, wailed into the silence...’

To sob means to cry quietly. To wail means to cry very loudly or bitterly, therefore you can’t have a character sobbing and wailing at the same time, and yet writers mistakenly put these two together. These are narrative oppositions that look as though they belong together, but actually don’t.

Another two words which are commonly grouped together within narrative, but actually mean slightly different things, are moan and groan.

‘He moaned and groaned as the pain rippled through him...’

Because of the way English constantly changes, both moan and groan are now used in the context of meaning the same thing, however, to moan is to whinge about something. To groan is to cry out with pain, but where fiction is concerned, describing a character doing both is a sign of lazy writing, so don’t make the mistake of having your characters moaning and groaning. 

Clarity, simplicity and accuracy should always be at the forefront of every writer’s mind.

Another two descriptive words commonly linked together, is flail and thrash, for instance, ‘he flailed on the floor and thrashed about...

Flail means to swing or wave erratically or wildly. Thrash means to beat or strike with a stick or whip etc, as though to flail someone. They mean similar things in English, but when using them in your narrative, they can cause ambiguity and confusion.

The same could be said for writhed and thrashed. Or writhed and flailed. These are two distinct words of different meanings.

Another example often seen is narrative that has a character shuddering and then quivering.

He shuddered as he looked up, quivering in the cold.

Again, while these two words may indicate similarity, they actually describe different things. Quivering and shuddering are different movements, because quivering is like a tremble, from either fear or excitement, and the act of shuddering is a large convulsive movement, associated with extreme cold or terrible fear. Writers mistakenly group them together thinking they mean the same thing.

And two words that often crop up in romance fiction is husked and rasped, as though trying to evoke sensual allure. But husk and rasp mean different things. One is a deep throaty sound; the other is a serrated, sharp sound. You can’t have your hero doing both.

The beauty of the editing process, however, is that you can remove oppositions like from your manuscript and correct the narrative before it hits the agent or publisher’s desk.

When it comes to your descriptive passages and narrative, use your words wisely and only in context, think about what you want to convey, otherwise you risk losing the meaning of what you’re trying to say, or worse still, you’ll end up confusing your reader altogether.

Remember - clarity, simplicity and accuracy.

Next week: How subtlety can improve your narrative.


  1. I keep on visiting and forgetting to say thanks for these posts. So thanks for these posts


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