Everything You Need to Know About Paradox in Literature and Film

'Back to the Future' Credit: Universal Pictures
It's time to break down the insignificances in life that are very important to creative minds like you and me. 

Have you ever sat down to watch the ending of Back to the Future and wonder how Marty’s parents and his siblings became cool and successful while Marty stayed relatively the same? The simple explanation is that George and Lorrain got it on at the same time as they did in the alternate timeline, and Marty lived his life in much of the same manner as possible.

However improbable it is, we believe it... to an extent. There are so many different moments that could alter the future reality, yet we have to believe in the answer that is given to us by the filmmaker. 

This fun little brain experiment is known as a paradox. Paradoxes have been a part of human thinking for thousands of years, and they are still not always well understood. This is even more true when it comes to paradoxes in literature and film. 

Whether you want to understand what a paradox is exactly or write the next great brain-twisting film paradox, we are here to help you get started. 

Table of Contents

What Is a Paradox?

Whether it is a brain-teaser, a personal observation, a visual, sound, or seemingly unsolvable problem within our world, there are some things that the human mind can’t understand even through sound logic. These encounters are paradoxes. 

Paradoxes are seemingly absurd self-contradictory statements or propositions that, when investigated or explained, may prove to be well-founded or true. Think of it as a contradiction, except this contradiction can manifest in a few ways. 

A paradoxical statement may seem to follow sound reasoning but is nonsensical upon further reflection. The statement could also sound contradictory, but it reveals a deeper truth the longer you pull it apart. Then, some paradoxes just defy all logic and reasoning, but can’t be proven true or false. 

Think of it as the multiverse: there are infinite amounts of ways that a problem can solve itself. The neverending string of sequences can alter realities slightly or completely without having a true origin or solution. A paradox is a question—“What if?” 

Examples of Paradoxes in Everyday Life

One paradoxical statement that will never be answered is if humans have free will or live in a state of predetermination, also known as theological fatalism. You can argue and justify whichever side you choose, but there is significant evidence that both sides are true and false at the same time. In the end, there is no right answer except for the one you believe in. 

A simple paradox is whether the chicken or the egg came first. The "chicken or egg" paradox was first proposed by philosophers in Ancient Greece to describe the problem of determining cause and effect. This simple question drove people mad as they tried to logically explain why the egg or the chicken came first, causing a team of physicists to test out the paradox only to find that the chicken and the egg can both come first.  

Here is a shortlist of common paradoxical statements that you can think about the next time you’re bored:

  • If I know one thing, it’s that I know nothing.
  • This is the beginning of the end.
  • Here are the rules: ignore all rules.
  • Don’t go near the water until you learn how to swim. 

How to Identify a Paradox

By now, you may have noticed that paradoxes are everywhere throughout the culture. You can find them in films, philosophy discussions, everyday speech and sayings, stories, and pop songs which often contain paradoxical lyrics as a way of expressing conflict and contradictory emotions. 

One of the most simple paradox examples is "the liar’s paradox."

Video is no longer available: youtu.be/7zVTzedNpAw 

In the liar's paradox, we have the statement: “This sentence is false.” It is among the most famous paradoxes because it sums up the nature of paradoxes so effortlessly. If the statement is true, then the sentence is false; thereby, making the statement true. It's a neverending circle that could rot the mind, so it is best not to get caught up in what is true and what is false. 

Paradoxes vs. Irony 

While browsing the internet for examples of paradoxes in songs, I stumbled across someone who believed that Alanis Morissette’s song, “Ironic,” was full of paradoxes and ironically enough not about irony. I looked at the lyrics, and there is nothing but irony in that song.

Let’s clear up the confusion by defining what separates irony from paradoxes

Irony is when an action or speech is the complete opposite of what something is expected to do or mean. There is a mismatch from a situation's intended meaning. Irony’s job is to create empathy or humor—like getting a free ride when you’ve already paid, or a fire station that is on fire. 

A paradox is a statement that contradicts its actual meaning and contains little bits of truth. It is not a mismatch situation, but rather a circle of explanations and thoughts that never end. 

While a paradox must be contained within a single statement or a single idea, irony can be a single statement or more to explain its point. With a paradox, less is more. 

Paradoxes vs. Oxymorons 

A paradox is more closely related to an oxymoron since both of them seem to be contraindications but true. 

Like I’ve mentioned before, paradoxes are statements or situations. Oxymorons are simply two contradictory words. Some examples are bittersweet, deafening silence, jumbo shrimp, and the walking dead. 

Oxymorons are a figure of speech that juxtaposes concepts with opposing meanings of a word or phrase. They can be used to illustrate an idea or reveal a paradox. 

How to Write a Paradox

As a literary device, paradoxes can set up a situation, idea, or concept that appears on the surface to be contradictory or impossible. However, the conflict is resolved due to the discovery of an underlying level of reason or logic through thought, understanding, or reflection. The paradox creates interest and a need for resolution.

Writers need to construct a paradox that has a meaning that isn’t lost for the audience. A paradox is dependent upon two elements: first, a statement or situation which initially appears contradictory, then, the statement or situation that appears contradictory must be logical. 

First, there must be an established conflict. By creating tension and potential suspense for a character who finds themselves going against the law as a means of preserving the law, a paradox can generate interest for the audience in terms of anticipating the resolution of the conflict. 

You can also use humor to show the paradoxical nature of a tense or difficult situation that the character finds themselves in. These moments of contrasting moods or feelings can show the inconsistencies of human nature, and how humans are innately contradictory beings. Check out how Scary Movie 3 and use paradoxes to add humor to otherwise tension-filled moments: 

Writing a story surrounding the idea of a paradox can also force your audience to think about their own answer to the paradox that the character is facing. Not only does this make your main character interesting and relatable, but makes the audience engage with the story on a deeper level. 

Paradox in Literature 

Paradoxes are great ways to test the limits of understanding and can lead to unexpected understandings. Oscar Wilde was particularly noted for his use of paradoxes.

In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Wilde wrote, “Well, the way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tightrope. When the verities become acrobats, we can judge them.” Authors have used paradoxes in their works for many centuries to explore situational complications and the extent of human judgment. 

Examples of paradoxes can be found in epic Greek poems like The Odyssey, written in the 8th century by Homer. The epic creates a paradox for the hero Odysseus who tricked the cyclops that captured Odysseus and his men. 

While captured, Odysseus, using his sharp intellect, gets the cyclops drunk and tells the cyclops that his name is Nobody. Later, he pokes out the cyclops's eye and the cyclops begins to scream to the neighbors, “Nobody is killing me.” The neighbors don’t come to the cyclops's aid because Nobody is hurting him when, in reality, someone is hurting him. 

Nobody stabbing the cyclops's eye out in 'Odyssey'Credit: Me.me

A more recent example of a paradox is the “catch-22” from the novel of the same name by Joseph Heller. Catch-22 follows the attempt of Yossarian, an American bomber stationed in Italy during World War II, to get out of a dangerous bombing mission by claiming to be mentally unstable. 

The paradox is that asking out of mission is seen as a sane act because only a sane person can perceive the danger. A mentally unstable person could never request the eyes of the superiors. Yossarian is pronounced sane and is made to fly in the mission.

The Philosophy Tube defines the title like this: "A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which there is no escape because of contradictory logical rules."

This paradox has become one of the most famous examples in literature, and the term has entered our daily speech as shorthand for a paradox. 

Another example of paradox in literature can be found in what I think is the most frustrating novel in existence, Animal Farm by George Orwell. In the novel, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” a principle of the society of animals Orwell uses as an allegory of human society under the reign of communism. 

Animal Farm’s paradox is meant to illuminate the hypocrisy inherent in ruling systems that claim egalitarianism while erecting unjust hierarchies. Both Heller and Orwell created paradoxes to show the absurdity of war and oppression. 

Paradox in Films

Science fiction films love to use paradoxes, especially when the story revolves around time travel. 

The best sci-fi films often use time travel as a way to dramatize temporal paradoxes and ask what could happen if we could alter reality as we know it. Although these films dramatize paradoxes, here are a few examples of films that use paradoxes to control the film’s narrative: 

Movies that use paradoxes typically use three types of "consistency paradox"—the grandfather, the casual loop, or the paradox of choice. Let's break down each of those paradoxes one example at a time. 

The Grandfather Paradox

Imagine a character traveling back in time to kill their grandfather as a young child. Why would the main character do this? Well, the possibilities are endless. The grandfather could have been a dictator or the inventor of some horrible social media site. 

Whatever the reason for the time travel is, the grandfather died. The problem then is if the grandfather was never alive, then one of the time-traveler’s parents was never born and the time-traveler was never born either to kill their grandfather. So, is it possible that the time traveler could kill their grandfather? Check out this video from Riddle to see one of the many ways to solve this paradox:

Maybe your character doesn’t want to kill their grandfather, but interacting with them will cause a shift in the timeline. Back to the Future is a perfect example of the grandfather paradox when Marty (Michael J. Fox) bumps into his parents, altering the trajectory of their relationship and Marty’s existence. 

Another famous example of the grandfather paradox can be found in The Terminator. Kyle is sent to protect Sarah Conner but ends up impregnating her with John. The question is, how did Kyle become John’s father if John is the one who sent him back in time? 

The Causal Loop

The causal loop—or the bootstrap paradox—happens when objects or information are never really created. Instead, their existence starts when it is created in the future, and ends by going to the past to become itself. An event causes another event, which is one of the causes of the first-mentioned event. 

The HBO series Watchmen follows Angela Abar (Regina King) as she tries to prevent an event from happening in her present-day but accidentally causes the events to happen because of information she gave Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who tells her grandfather that said information in the past. 

It’s complicated, but it is like a clock. All the pieces move together to make the entire story function. 

The Paradox of Choice 

There are also sci-fi films that don’t require any time-traveling like Mr. Nobody. Both of these films tackle theological fatalism, putting the idea forth that, as 9-year-old Nemo from Mr. Nobody puts it, “You have to make the right choice. As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.” 

The endless amount of choices we have when faced with a problem can overload us, setting up unrealistically high expectations, and making us blame ourselves for any failures when we could have no choice of free will in the end.

Think of it like you're at the store trying to buy coffee. There are endless amounts of brands, flavors, grinds, and expiration dates to choose from, and you spend time carefully deciding which choice will be the best one for you. This ability to choose sends the mind into a state of paralysis, making it harder for you to make a choice. 

Why You Should Use Paradoxes

Paradoxes can demonstrate the fallibility of human logic. While logic is a valuable tool, it sometimes breaks down and shows us the faults within our minds. 

The world around us is full of contradictions, especially when it comes to people’s behavior and personality. When characters are created with contradicting natures, it makes them more well-rounded and believable to the audience. Most people are paradoxes in one way or another, so the main character who isn’t paradoxical could seem manufactured or unrelatable. 

Paradoxes can also create a layer of mystery to a story which makes the work more compelling to an audience. Sci-fi loves using paradoxes because they force the characters and audience to think about what it means to be human. If we had the technology to travel back in time, then would we go back if that meant risking not existing? But if we didn’t exist, how could we go back in time? 

The question of "What if?" is neverending and can lead you down many different roads of curiosity. As filmmakers, we are entitled to always ask questions and never stop being curious.      

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