The more I learn about grammar and rhetorical definitions in literature, the better I think I become at making my screenplays literary artifacts. One thing I just learned about is called "chiasmus."

In the realm of language, chiasmus is a powerful and captivating figure of speech that adds depth and resonance to written and spoken communication. This literary device, known for its symmetrical and often thought-provoking structure, has been employed by some of the most influential writers, politicians, and orators throughout history.

In this article, we'll explore the definition of chiasmus, its history, and provide a range of examples to illustrate its impact on language and storytelling.

Let's get to work.

Chiasmus | Repetition with a

Chiasmus Definition

Chiasmus DefinitionThe West Wing

Credit: NBC

Chiasmus is a literary device characterized by the reversal of grammatical structures or concepts in successive phrases or sentences. In chiasmus, words, clauses, or ideas are presented in an A-B-B-A pattern, where the second half of the expression inverts the order of the first half.

This figure of speech is often used to create emphasis, symmetry, contrast, and resonance in language and writing.

The Origin of Chiasmus

The term chiasmus finds its roots in the Greek word "khiásmos," which means "crossing" or "intersection." It was frequently employed by prominent thinkers like Plato and Aristotle.

Chiasmus continued to evolve as a powerful tool in both literature and public speaking throughout history. In modern times, figures like Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy utilized chiasmus to craft compelling speeches that resonate with audiences to this day.

Why Writers Use Chiasmus

Why Writers Use Chiasmus

'Breaking Bad'

Credit: AMC

Writers use chiasmus for several compelling reasons, as this rhetorical device can significantly enhance their writing and communication.

Here are a few reasons why writers use chiasmus:

  • Emphasis: Chiasmus places emphasis on specific words, phrases, or ideas by repeating and reversing them. This repetition and reversal draw attention to those elements, making them stand out and resonate with the reader or audience. Writers use chiasmus to ensure that certain points are not easily forgotten.
  • Clarity: It can enhance clarity by presenting information or ideas in a balanced and organized manner. This can be particularly helpful when dealing with complex or contrasting concepts. By structuring thoughts symmetrically, writers can make them easier to understand.
  • Aesthetics: It adds a sense of artistry and elegance to writing. Its balanced and symmetrical structure appeals to the aesthetic sensibilities of readers, contributing to the overall quality of the prose. This can be especially valuable in literature, poetry, and persuasive writing.
  • Artistic Expression: For creative writers, it can allow for artistic expression and experimentation with language. It can add depth, symbolism, and layers of meaning to the narrative, enriching the overall storytelling experience.
  • Highlighting Contrasts: Chiasmus is an effective way to highlight contrasts, paradoxes, or ironies. By reversing elements, writers can underscore the differences between them, prompting readers to consider the implications and relationships between the reversed concepts.

Examples of Chiasmus in Real Life

I think the best was to understand this concept is to just see it in action. Let's look at some famous quotes which use chiasmus within them.

  • "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." –John F. Kennedy: In this line from his inaugural address, Kennedy uses chiasmus to emphasize civic duty and selflessness, encouraging citizens to contribute to their nation's well-being.
  • "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." –Winston Churchill: Churchill employs chiasmus to underscore the relationship between architecture and society, suggesting that our constructed environments influence our behaviors and attitudes.
  • "The instinct of a man is to pursue everything that flies from him, and to fly from all that pursue him." –Voltaire: This example from Voltaire demonstrates how chiasmus can highlight the paradoxical nature of human desires and actions, engaging the reader's intellect.

Chiasmus Examples in Film and TV

Chiasmus Examples in Film and TV

'House of Cards' Behind the Scenes

Credit: Netflix

Chiasmus is more commonly found in written or spoken language than in film and TV. But, there are instances where chiasmus is used effectively in dialogue or storytelling to create impact.

  1. The Dark Knight (2008): Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) delivers a memorable line that exhibits chiasmus:
    • "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." This line by Harvey Dent reverses the order of "die a hero" and "live long enough," emphasizing the transformation from hero to villain over time.
  2. The West Wing (TV Series): Aaron Sorkin, known for his rapid-fire dialogue, incorporates chiasmus in various episodes. For instance:
    • "We do what's right, and then we figure out how to make it work afterward." This line, spoken by President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), uses chiasmus to emphasize the importance of moral decisions preceding practical considerations.
  3. House of Cards (TV Series): In this political drama series, Frank Underwood often employs chiasmus to convey his manipulative and calculating nature.
    • "From this moment on, you are a rock. You absorb nothing, you say nothing, and nothing breaks you." Here, the chiasmus structure emphasizes the idea of emotional detachment and resilience.
  4. Breaking Bad (TV Series): Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the main character in this series, uses chiasmus-like structures at times:
    • "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really... I was alive." This statement reflects Walter White's evolution from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to a drug lord.

Chiasmus is a powerful literary device that has stood the test of time.

Whether used to craft memorable speeches, enhance written prose, or provoke thought, it continues to be a valuable tool in the arsenal of writers, orators, and communicators alike.

Let me know what you think in the comments.