A Study in Opposites

PhotobucketI want to share a quick thesaurus tip with you today that might help to strengthen your storytelling.

Robert McKee in his book Story asks us to consider opposites, to play out contrasting forces to create tension in scenes and chapters. Which powerful force will prevail in your story—the Light-as-Luke side, or Darth? It shouldn’t be obvious. Create a seesaw effect between the forces, give each multiple turns to make its case throughout the book, and readers will be off-balance, unsure what’s going to happen next. That’s what you want.

The contrasting ideas and root of my characters’ struggles in my work-in-progress are hope and death. And though I hit on the most obvious forms of hope and death in my story, I didn’t want to be limited to just those things. That’s where my thesaurus came in–providing some unique ideas.

Toss a Wide Net to Gather Contrasting Forces

Early in the drafting process, I visited thesaurus.com and plugged in the word hope. I collected synonyms like ambition, optimism, believe, mirage (fallacies of vision), and related words, like befriend, alive, moving, vivacious, attached and dependency. I did the same thing for the opposite value, death, gathering words like funereal, lost, rigor mortis, resignation, departure, bad luck, disappearance, crime, sullenness, mute. I spanned out, formed more lists of positive/hopeful words and phrases linked to my previous list—words like trust, together, moving, attached, ponder, risk—then did the same for the negative/death words—gathering the positive words’ antonyms (distrust, alone, stagnant, disconnected, withdraw, ignore, retreat).

Make Lists of Positive and Negative Values, Brainstorm Possibilities

I plunked lists of words into columns labeled Negative Value and Positive Value, until I had three pages of words to draw from. And then I sat with the list, and what I knew of my story, and circled all of the words and phrases I thought might play into the journey of two girls walking across the state of West Virginia, jotting ideas in the margins: outcast (meet drifters?), neglected (people, things?), locomote (need a train; fits great with the setting), up the creek (someone lost, maybe secondary storyline?), callous, roots, drive, exit (car accident?), swinging (park?), free as a bird, safe house (introduce a new character), etc…

Utilize Values Down to the Micro-Level

In every scene, and in as many graphs as I could, I tried to find ways to lean on my positive and negative values–usually leaning on one much more heavily than the other in a single scene. For example, my more negative main character–the one focused on death–comments on the unventilated, uncomfortable, sweltering bus, and hones in on worst-case scenarios and the dreariest parts of something–the rust, the grime, the callouses on her feet.

That doesn’t mean my more negative character is one note. On the contrary, it was interesting to see how she met with new challenges and grew past her tendencies, thinking one thing at times and doing the opposite. And when my more positive character, my hope girl, met with a wall? Having her evade or scale, or be eviscerated by it was also interesting to explore.

Who knew the thesaurus could be such a useful tool? Aid. Resource.

What are the positive and negative values in your wip? What techniques do you use to bring out those values in your storytelling?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s zachstern


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. says

    AHHHH! What a cool post! I adore thesaurus.com and use it often when I’m writing my novel drafts. I will definitely take this tip to heart! What a fun way to get writing ideas!

    ~L.M. Sherwin

  2. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Imagine what you could do with Roget’s! (Which, despite the time suck of the index, is the only thesaurus that consistently gets me to the word I really want.) Nice post.

  3. says

    What a great use for the thesaurus, beyond my usual “I can’t use this word one more time, need to find an alternate.” Thanks! I’ll now be using it to build depth and not just variety.

  4. says

    Perfect timing, T. I’m finishing up an edit of book 3 and gearing up for the rewrite of book 1. It’s fun to think about the opening of the series as I edit the end of ends.

    I can see so much of this teetering between light and dark going on. My MCs are being pulled between free will someone else’s peconception of destiny. This makes me think of it in a whole new light (and a deeper darkness ;-).

    Say, you’re pretty darn good at writing these articles. You should do this more often (pretty please). Can’t wait to walk across the state of W. Virgina with your characters!

  5. says

    What a great technique. I never would have thought of doing something like this, but it makes so much sense. Did you use it for The Last Will of Moira Leahy? I have to try it. Thanks for a great post.

    • says

      Thanks, CG! No, I didn’t use the thesaurus technique for Last Will, but I did play off opposites. One subtle example: I tried to link Moira to the earth as much as possible (gardening, touching the ground, etc…) while young Maeve looked up a lot (noticing cloud shapes, stars).

  6. says

    I’ve done this! But I stupidly limited it to small scene/character descriptions. Now I’m going to apply it to the premise. Great stuff, Therese. :D

    • says

      No, it’s great that you’re already on the road to exploring the possibilities of opposites, D.D. If you come back and see this, I’d love to know more about the opposites in your story.

      • says

        My story parallels two families, each from different countries that hold opposing values (science advanced vs supernaturally endowed, belief in the divinity of man vs belief in a higher power)–my MCs don’t subscribe to the politics or dogma; they’re caught in the middle while working through their goals and conflict.

        I began using your technique last year in an action scene where a character was beating up my MC–it struck me that the adversary was very much like a predatory lion. I combed through everything “leonine” (underline everything, I even listened to a lion growl then searched the thesaurus for that-lol,) wrote out all the words, circled my favorites, and then wrote the scene using many of those choices for the action, description and character insight.

        Listing those choices gave me more variety than just plugging in one word for another– I captured movement, intent, and basic natural instinct. The scene was uncluttered and visually striking. It’s one of my favorites, but I never thought about characterizing the premise that way. You’ve really expanded my thinking on this. :)

  7. says

    I use my thesaurus on a regular basis. To use it for actual character development is a wonderful idea. What a perfect way to make characters 3 dimensional and show they are flawed. Thanks for the info here. I am putting this in my creative ideas folder:)

  8. says


    Hope and death? Such lightweight themes! Kidding. Getting loopy as a politician in this heat.

    In all seriousness, thesaurus.com would justify the entire internet by itself. I use it constantly but never thought to use it in the way you describe, as a story generator. That’s inspired.

    And thanks for focusing on opposites, a sure-fire way to create conflict. I’ll be keen to see how this plays out in your new novel.

  9. says

    Nicely done, Therese. I’ve never focused consciously on opposites, though the conflict of opposites is in my work. Your technique has motivated me to think more purposefully about them in my WIP (the sequel to The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles).

    • says

      Thanks, Ray! Check out the sister site of thesaurus.com, too — reference.com. You can find some good ideas there if you’re looking for simile material.

  10. says

    Great tip! I’d never have thought about using a thesaurus this way, but it seems like it can take you to some interesting fictional destinations. I’ll give this a try as I’m generating ideas for my latest draft.

    • says

      I was amazed at the number of ways the words lined up with the setting of my story when I did this; the results were uncanny. I hope you have good luck as well.

  11. says

    I try to do this whenever I can. Setting and weather hold a lot of great possibilities, playing of a character’s emotions. Nothing’s worse that a bright sunny day when a character is depressed–it helps emotions stand out stark and clear. And ditto with choosing a setting designed to put the character off balance as soon as they enter it. Opposites cause friction (tension). :)

    Great post!

    Angela Ackerman

  12. says

    Oh, this is BRILLIANT!

    After writing a mini-scene of my new WIP, I allowed myself to go read today’s WU post. I am so glad I did! This is such a smart idea . . . especially for those days when writing feels schlumpy and dreary.

    Thank you for adding a great way to spice up any stage of a WIP!

    You really are so smart.

  13. says

    Oooh, this is very interesting! My current WIP also deals a lot with hope and death (as many books do), as well as memory. I think I’ll definitely use this technique to help build up some of the secondary characters when I begin revising in a few days. I do currently associate certain types of words with different characters (especially the main one), etc., but often the secondary ones still end up one-note; they contrast other characters, but are rather single-faceted themselves. It’ll be interesting to see how much the more background characters come alive if I do something like this on a more active and thought-out level. There are a few I can see gaining some much-needed development and dimension through this method. Thanks for the idea!

    • says

      Kristin, oh, I wish you such good luck with using this technique to help with your secondary folks. Will you let us know how it goes? (Come back to comments anytime; I’ll keep watch.)

  14. says

    Neat idea, Therese. Sounds like you almost made a mind map, though you put the outcome into columns rather than clouds. I think this could work for my brain.

  15. says

    While writing our first novel, Tales from the Kingdome: The Knight in Screeching Armor, there was a clear divide between light and dark, a reflection on our beliefs. While working on the draft for a future story, we did, however, find it intensely interesting to make the reader wonder as to who is right and who is wrong. It is even more fun to make both wrong, but only save this reveal for the end!

    • says

      Yes! I think it’s probably a very difficult thing to write a story in which you truly do not know how things will pan out in the end–which side will prevail. Big congrats that you were able to do that.

  16. says

    Love this! I’m a thesaurus junkie and often find myself chasing words but I’ve never used it as a plotting device. I’m going to try this. Thanks!

  17. says

    Very interesting idea! My current WIP focuses on truth and deception — I’ll have to take it to the thesaurus and see what sort of thoughts that gives me.

  18. says

    Oh dear, looks like I’ve found yet another fun way to procrastinate. Not that I needed one, mind you. LOL

    Thanks for sharing!

  19. says

    Besides, I’m always hopping over to Thesaurus.com while I write, or, better yet, opening my actual Roget’s Thesaurus. :)

    The idea of having two main themes that are opposites and using derivatives of those themes throughout the story is genius. I’ve already tossed several one-word themes around and explored the thesaurus. Thanks so much!

  20. says

    I’m so glad this idea appeals to so many of you! I was honestly unsure about posting this at all, and thought maybe the value would only be clear in my quirky head.

  21. says

    Having switched to an iMac (and Scrivener), I find the Mac Dictionary/Thesaurus quite helpful. Another thought: I frequently use Dr. Barbara Ann Kipfer’s “Flip Dictionary” when the right word refuses to bubble up through ye olde neurotransmitters. Of course, I’m now adding thesaurus.com to the bookmarks bar. Thanks Therese!