In the spirit of encouraging continued education, today we’re sharing a concept from a current international writing course, offered through the University of Iowa’s online learning program. The course is titled How Writers Write Fiction 2015. This course addresses essential elements of writing fiction and features accomplished authors, literature professors, and guest lecturers sharing their insights on the unique tools of fiction writing.

Jonathan Lethem was featured in one of the most resent video lessons, addressing organic plot development. Writers approach plot with a variety of methods, but his suggestion encourages the writer to embrace two concepts, from which plot naturally rises: Juxtaposition and Causality.

This instructs on using juxtaposition in photography, but the principle is sound in many forms of creative expression.

Juxtaposition can be defined this way: the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect. Causality means: the relationship between cause and effect.

If two things are different enough, and are reactive to one another, the interaction of the two will create action, tension, interest, and narrative force. Put simply, throw a couple of concepts in the pot and see what happens!

Magic happens when the reaction is right. However, it can take a lot of combinations to find ones that sing for you.

Combining Broad Concepts

One common example of broad blending is urban fantasy. Someone decided to take a fantasy character (or device) and put them in a modern world. Sub-genres pop up this way, shuffling conventional elements and asking, “What if…?” Tropes, archetypes, genres, settings, and themes can all be used in this conceptual game of musical chairs.

Be ready to put them to the test, however, because an interesting pairing may not have material enough for a full story (though it makes for an interesting scene). Bundle large concepts first and supplement any reaction with further combinations of smaller elements like character tropes, story mechanics, conflict types, or power images.

Bing Crosby played the Connecticut Yankee in the 1949 film of the story.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a classic result of this blending (a reverse of the example given above) and was written in 1889 by Mark Twain. It’s driven by the situation, an anachronism of a character reacting to and being acted on by this unusual context. Moby Dick, the expansive work by Herman Melville, came about as a blend of sea adventure (a popular genre of his day) and his desire to share with others his fascination with the whaling industry. The action in this work springs from the pressures and structure of life aboard a ship and the conflicting feelings about whaling that prevailed at the time.

Shuffling The Deck

One of the more popular manifestations of juxtaposition and causality exists in writing existing stories into another context. Rewrites, sequels, and reboots rely on narrative reaction to new elements, especially where fairy tales and myths are concerned.

Into the Woods, as an example, combines a common element of western fairy tales (the wild and treacherous woods) to produce a single story line. The Once Upon a Time TV series not only combines fairy tale characters, themes, and settings, but does so with the added element of interaction with the real world.

In a more literary direction, consider James Joyce’s Ulysses. This is an example Lethem gave in his video instruction. Joyce retells the story of Homer’s Odyssey set in grungy, troubled Dublin, combining this cultural epic with the powerful memories of his own upbringing.


No matter which ideas come together and spark for you, the plot force appears when answering the leading questions resulting from the mashup. Using Mark Twain’s concept blend, here are a few questions to lead that story:

How does the Yankee react to the medieval world? How do the medieval people react to a modern person? How will the Yankee get home? How did he get there? Why is he there?

While answering these questions through narrative, others will surface. What would it be like if he rode a horse in armor? Who would he pick a fight with? Who would believe his story? Who would believe he should be killed? Who would he like, who would he dislike? What would he believe or disbelieve about what he’s seeing? What were these people doing before he showed up?

Work the concepts and allow them to play out. The plot, in this way, should be an exploration more than a set path to follow.


Jonathan Lethem ( – Contributing author in the 2015 International How Writers Write Fiction Course offered through The University of Iowa.


Commenting area

  1. Kenneth R. Ampel October 25, 2015 at 3:29 pm · · Reply

    Very interesting comments to recommend, in attempting to write organically, and thanks for the Univ. of Iowa open course!

    • It’s a great class and they provide enough to challenge writers at any level. Hope you join in when you can!

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