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Paradox: Definition, How It Works & Examples In Writing

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Paradoxes are literary devices that authors may use when writing and represent a situation where two or more contradictory things occur.

Unlike most other techniques, paradoxes are mostly limited to fiction, as they aren’t relevant to most non-fiction.

However, they may appear in an investigative context like research or crime reports.

What Is a Paradox?

Paradoxes are (usually theoretical) situations where two things cannot be true simultaneously.

This circles in an infinite loop because you can’t have a situation where both occur.

True paradoxes generally cannot exist in a story, so resolving them is crucial in any sequence where they appear.

Also Known As

Paradoxes are also known as:

  • Anomalies
  • Contradictions
  • Inconsistencies

Simple Definition: How To Explain a Paradox to a Child

A ball cannot be entirely red and entirely green at the same time.

If a writer says that it is, this is a paradox.

Why Is a Paradox Used?

Most writers use this technique to show that something is wrong with the world in their writing.

Paradoxes are mostly unnecessary when deciding how to write a blog post, but you may occasionally use them to help illustrate a point or create a dramatic scenario for your readers.

Types of Paradoxes

Here are some of the most common types of paradoxes in writing.

1. Antinomy Paradoxes

An antinomy paradox is where two contradictory ideas exist without committing a simple logical error. Someone may need something they can only get by not needing it.

The namesake example is a soldier who wants the military to think him insane so he can avoid combat, but the desire to avoid combat is sane, which proves that he is in his right mind.

2. Falsidical Paradoxes

A falsidical paradox is a paradox that seems like an antinomy paradox but has a noticeable error in its reasoning.

For example, “to reach a target, an arrow must always travel half the remaining distance, so it will never hit its target.”

This is false because physics dictates that the arrow will not continually move forever.

3. Veridical Paradoxes

A veridical paradox is one where the logic in a contradictory situation is true when given context.

For example, a man may be twenty-four years old with only six birthdays.

The statement seems wrong, but if his birthday is on a Leap Day, the logic holds up even though the concept itself is ridiculous.

How Do You Identify a Paradox?

Paradoxes are easy to identify when comparing details because they can’t both be true.

In fiction, characters often notice and call out intentional paradoxes.

In non-fiction, paradoxes are usually part of explanations.

How Do You Use a Paradox in a Sentence?

Unlike other writing techniques, paradoxes are usually more of a paragraph, a page, or even the subject of an entire book instead of being a single element in a sentence.

This is because it often takes time to list the paradox and point out the problem to the reader.

If you were to use a paradox in a simple sentence, it’s easiest to do with statements that directly contradict the nature of reality.

For example, if you said, “The rain went up,” readers would automatically catch that something strange is happening because rain physically cannot go up unless something else is involved.

What Is the Most Popular Example of a Paradox?

The most famous paradox is the liar’s paradox, which states “this sentence is false.”

If it’s correct, it must be false. If it’s false, by definition it cannot be true.

There’s a fundamental impossibility to the statement and, therefore, you can’t resolve it as true or false.

Other Famous Examples of Paradoxes

  • Banach-Tarski Paradox: In math, the Banach-Tarski paradox suggests that given a solid sphere in three-dimensional space, you can break the ball into a finite number of pieces, then put them back together differently to create two balls of the same size.
  • Potato Paradox: 100 pounds of potatoes, being 99% water (for the purpose of the question) are left to dry overnight so they’re 98% water. What is their new weight? The answer is 50 pounds because the dry mass does not change. For the dry amount to become 2% of its weight, the potatoes must drop in weight by half.
  • Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object: What happens if something that can’t stop hits something that can’t move? We can’t test this one, but solutions suggest either both would break or they would pass through each other with no harm.

Other Modern Examples of Paradoxes

Here are some other examples of paradoxes.

Examples of Paradoxes for Kids

  • Monty Hall Problem: There are three doors in a game show and a prize behind one door. After you choose a door, the host will open an empty door, then let you change your door choice to the other one. It is always better to change your choice as there is a higher chance of the other door containing the prize.
  • Ontological Paradox: You send information to yourself in the past that you received in the past from your future self. Where did this information originate?
  • The Paradox of Free Will: If someone (say, an omniscient deity) knows with certainty what you will do, does free will exist?

Examples of Paradoxes in Everyday Life

  • The More You Fail, The More You Succeed: Although it sounds paradoxical at first, the truth is that failing gives experience and knowledge that you can use in the future. Most people are incompetent when they first start doing something, but they can become better at it over time.
  • The Swiss Cheese Paradox: Swiss cheese has holes in it. More cheese means more holes, and more holes mean less cheese. Therefore, more cheese equals less cheese.
  • The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty: Unexpected things can happen in life, and that’s one of the few things you can expect.

Examples of Paradoxes in Writing and Literature

  • Good Omens: In Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s apocalyptic comedy Good Omens, there’s a scene where a temperature checker simultaneously reads 700 and -140 degrees. The book notes that both are true, and it’s a symptom of reality itself starting to break apart.
  • The Odyssey: In the ancient Greek tale of Odysseus, the famed strategist once tells a giant, “I am nobody” as a ploy to hide his identity. This helps him avoid retribution later when the giant screams out that “Nobody hurt him”.
  • The Incredibles: In Pixar’s The Incredibles, the villain Syndrome tells the heroic Mr. Incredible “if everyone is special, no one is.” By bringing people to a closer level, the things that make them unique will disappear, so nobody can be better.

Notable Writers Who Used Paradoxes

Many famous writers use paradoxes in their stories. Here are a few notable examples.

George Orwell

George Orwell famously used a paradox in his dystopian novel 1984 with the introduction of doublethink.

In the story, he described this as a state where people would accept contradictory opinions, often because of political teaching, so that they would ignore the paradoxes the government was creating and do as their leaders instructed.

William Shakespeare

Paradoxes appear throughout Shakespeare’s works, but they’re particularly prevalent in Macbeth.

Early on, the witches in the story foretell the events of the play by telling Macbeth that he will become king.

Macbeth had never even considered the idea before, so if the witches hadn’t told him, would he have killed Duncan on his own and become the king of Scotland?

This paradox is an example of the fickleness of fate and self-fulfilling prophecies.  

George Bernard Shaw

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw often used paradoxes in his works, usually for explaining the story.

For example, he once said that youth is a wonderful thing, and it was a shame that children had it.

The point here is that things may not be understood or enjoyed by those that have them.

What Is the Opposite of a Paradox?

The opposite of a paradox is any statement that’s true and accurate, with no fallacies or irregularities that make it difficult to understand.

You can still use descriptive language for statements that are not paradoxes; they just have to remain true.

Paradox vs. Oxymoron

Some people confuse paradoxes with oxymorons.

An oxymoron is a statement of two words that seem to cancel each other out.

For example, jumbo shrimp is an oxymoron because the words imply opposite sizes.

However, the issue resolves when you consider that shrimp are also a type of creature, not just a term for size, so it’s possible to have large shrimp.

Other Related Literary Devices To Know

Here are some other literary devices to know when you’re writing:

  • Analogy: An analogy is a comparison used to help explain something, usually by showcasing similar traits.
  • Metaphor: A metaphor is a figure of speech not meant to be taken literally, such as saying that life is a highway is a metaphor used to describe travel through the events of one’s life, not down a literal road.
  • Hyperbole: Hyperbole is similar to a metaphor, but with exaggerated elements or claims not meant literally.
  • Juxtaposition: Juxtaposition is comparing two things to show the contrast between them. In fiction, an author may make the protagonist and antagonist of a story fundamentally similar, showing how the differences between them are essential for morality and decision-making.
  • Foreshadowing: Foreshadowing is a hint about future content before it appears, usually to give clues to the audience about what will happen later on in the story.

Writing Tools To Help You Out

Writing can be difficult.

While there are countless things to write about, there are also many types of writers, and not everyone is good at every form of writing.

To help with that, here are some writing tools that will make any type of writing a little easier.

1. Writing Helpers

Writing helpers include a broad selection of software that helps you write.

This can include planning software for keeping track of information and people, text-to-speech devices so you can talk instead of using a keyboard, and other assorted tools.

2. AI Writing Software

AI software that writes content is becoming more popular these days.

This can be a helpful way to start writing about a particular subject, though AI tends to fizzle out when it needs to generate original ideas or use more complex literary devices.

It’s helpful for some types of content, but not all.

3. Grammar Checkers

Grammar checkers can help you spot common mistakes in writing.

The best grammar checkers are impressively accurate, though you shouldn’t rely entirely on their suggestions.

They’re a tool, not infallible guides.

4. Content Creators

If you can’t write something yourself, you can hire content creators to do it for you.

Content creators can write everything from brief product descriptions to entire novels.

Expect to pay for quality, but it can be worth the investment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some common questions that people have about paradoxes.

What is the weirdest paradox?

Weirdness is subjective in paradoxes, but one unusual one is the Ship of Theseus.

In this thought experiment, a builder replaces all the parts on a ship, one by one.

At any point, does it become a different ship?

Philosophers have argued this question from every angle, and they still haven’t agreed upon a resolution.

What is a paradox in Romeo and Juliet?

Paradoxes appear throughout Romeo and Juliet, particularly as it relates to love and hate when the children of two feuding families fall for each other.

For example, would Romeo and Juliet have turned to violence as a solution if they had not been steeping in it since they were born?

Wrapping Up

Paradoxes are wild even at the best of times, and they only get weirder.

Although not as common as most other literary devices, paradoxes often excel at showcasing an error or a problem with an idea.

If you’re looking to master writing, make sure to check out our other great writing tips.

The more you know about writing, the better you can become, and that isn’t a paradox!


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