10/22/2014 05:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Enemy, I Love You. Why Polar Opposites Power Storyline


Devour a book, become hooked on a TV show or be inspired by a speech and you're enjoying the skill of the storyteller. As to whether you remain reading, keep watching or tune-out, that's all down to how well your storyteller understood the power of paired opposites.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...

Take a look at those opening lines from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and you'll see that it relies on paired opposites to create the drama.

How about this line from the most celebrated of American speeches:

The brave men, living and dead..

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and yet again, statements that use opposites.

Bring things right up to date and look at President Obama's 2014 address to the UN General Assembly:

....we come together at a crossroads, between war and peace; between disorder and disintegration; between fear and hope.

And speaking of War and Peace, there's a pair of opposites right there, creating the title of a great work of literature.

Wherever you look in books, TV shows, or speeches, there's a prevalence of the polarised. In fact, look to the world of movies and you see the same thing occurring with lead characters.

  • For Dumbledore, there's Voldemort
  • For Snow White, there's the Wicked Queen
  • For Luke Skywalker, there's Darth Vader (who also turns-out to be his Dad, and that opens-up a whole other psycho-literary bag of spanners).

What's going on with all these opposites? Why is the technique so omnipresent?

It's because books, movies and speeches are all about storytelling, and good stories need momentum. Opposites are the gravity-engine that provide that momentum.

Think about is as being like two stars or planets waltzing in orbit around each other. Constantly facing each other in a tidal-lock, one star swings the other along with it, and vice versa. Should one suddenly vanish in a super-nova, then it's locked opposite, losing all momentum, would wander off aimlessly into the void.

Ever notice how TV thrillers seldom end with the complete vanquishing of the bad guy? There's always a hint of "I'll be back". You need the lingering presence of the baddie because if the dark-side was wiped-out completely, then all momentum would drop from the plot and along with it any reason for your audience to tune-in next week.

The Roman writer and guru on all things public-speaking, Quntilian, in his 1st century AD manual on presentation skills, the Institutio Oratoria, used a delicious culinary metaphor to explain what's going on. He asked the audience to consider the secret ingredient behind any mouthwatering desert. It's lemon juice. Just a touch is what's required to make sweet flavours truly pop! Even in cookery we have the pull of polar opposites.

So, whenever you're telling a story, whether to the children at bedtime or to a client in the boardroom, remember to include the lemon-juice; a touch of opposite, because without the presence of a dragon, Handsome Knight can never rescue Fair Maiden.

For example, consider if Handsome Knight just came along and untied Fair Maiden from the tree where somebody appeared to have rather inconveniently left her. This isn't a story -- there's nothing to battle against, no challenge to overcome.

What happens though if Handsome Knight comes along and has to battle Fearsome Dragon before untying Fair Maiden from tree? Now that's a story. You have challenge. You have tension. You have opposites.

Although of course..... should Fearsome Dragon, narrowly avoiding a sword aimed at his heart, suddenly kill Handsome Knight but then turn around and rescue Fair Maiden because it was actually Handsome Knight who had been the baddie all along, well then we have the rule of opposites used to challenge audience beliefs, and the basic plot-line behind Disney's Maleficent.

The apparent baddie doesn't always turn out to be the real-baddie. Sometimes it is the preconceived perceptions of the audience themselves that are playing the role of the opposite -- the opposite of the truth.

Good stories can affirm an audience's preconceptions, but great stories take those preconceptions and reframe them, moving the audience into a brand new orbit of belief. For that story you need a powerful engine, and that engine comes from understanding the power of opposites.

What's your lemon-juice? Where's your dragon? -- As a storyteller, you need them.

Peter Paskale is a communications coach and analyst who writes The Presenters' Blog at