What Is Paradox in Writing? Learn About Paradox in Writing With Examples

Paradoxes are commonly used in literature, daily conversation, and movies. You may not even realize that certain phrases are prime examples of a paradox. When learning this type of statement, it is important to understand the different variations, and how they serve uniquely in literature.

What Is a Paradox?

The dictionary defines paradox as a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true. A person, item or situation can also be described as a paradox if he or it exhibits this combination of truth and contradiction.

Paradox is dependent upon two elements:

1) A statement or situation which initially appears contradictory.

2) The statement or situation that appears contradictory must, after consideration, be a logical or well-founded premise.

Literary Examples

1. In William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, the titular character says, “I must be cruel to be kind.” How can someone be both cruel and kind? This is a good example of how a paradox can add depth to characters: Hamlet believes that by killing Claudius, he is ultimately doing the right thing by avenging his father’s murder.

2. In George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman, the protagonist Jack Tanner says, “The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.” This paradox upends the basic principle of treating others as you would like to be treated and illustrates Shaw’s personal contempt for convention.

3. In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll uses paradoxes to define the rules of the nonsensical world and to add humor. In one passage, the March Hare asks Alice if she wants more tea, despite the fact she hasn’t had any tea: “‘I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, ‘so I can't take more.’ ‘You mean you can’t take less,’ said the Hatter. ‘It's very easy to take more than nothing.’”

Movie Examples

1. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

2. “If everyone is special, no one is.” (Disney’s The Incredibles)

3. “The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.” (Fight Club)

Every Day Paradoxes

  • Less is more
  • You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't
  • The beginning of the end
  • Impossible is not a word in my vocabulary
  • The more you give, the more you get
  • Living in the present for the future
  • The only constant is change

Not to be Confused With Oxymorons

The noteworthy difference between a paradox and an oxymoron lies in the length of the phrase or term being described. Oxymorons are short, two-word phrases, presented without further explanation. A paradox can be made up of a longer phrase, a paragraph, or even a full story. Basically, paradox refers to the larger idea behind a contradiction that illuminates a truth, whereas an oxymoron is the term for a simple two-word phrase that illustrates the same idea.

One common example of an oxymoron is the phrase jumbo shrimp. The word jumbo means large and the word shrimp translates to small, yet the phrase makes sense. Other clear examples include open secret, junk food and deafening silence, which cleverly convey concrete ideas using a sometimes-amusing juxtaposition of contradictory words.