If we are writing fiction, we need to be able to think critically and see a character’s thought processes from all sides. If we have tunnel vision in our writing, we only write what is directly in front of us.
This makes our narrative one dimensional, boring. There is no surprise at the end because we saw it coming all along, and no effort was made to counter it.
So how do we take that one-dimensional idea and make the reader believe we have (figuratively) plucked them from their comfortable existence and placed them in a real, three-dimensional world?
We do it layer by layer. Some layers are more abstract than others, but they add so much to a story.
Take the unexpected.
When you add something unexpected into the mix, the reader becomes interested in finding out more. They keep turning the pages.
One way to introduce the unexpected is to employ a literary device called Dramatic Irony. Employed deftly, irony inserted into the ordinary adds the element of surprise and a moment of “ah-hah!” to a scene. The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
Let’s consider Romeo and Juliet. When we examine the way William Shakespeare wrote the play, we see layer after layer of irony, applied heavily.
First, the prologue announces that the Capulets are at war with the Montagues and tells us that what happens to the star-crossed lovers at the end will bring about peace between the warring families. That the audience is aware of the situation from the outset, but the characters are not is one layer of irony. That “we know, but you don’t” factor was extraordinarily daring in its day and was one of the things Elizabethans loved most about the play.
Now, the next layer is one that resonates with modern audiences: The second layer of irony is laid on when Romeo falls in love with his nemesis—the daughter of his family’s arch-enemy.
Again, the audience sees the irony there, but (third layer) Romeo pushes onward, trying to convince Juliet that her family won’t harm him, that her love will protect him.
Alas, the ironic blindness of teenaged infatuation.
And at this point, despite the blatant warning, the prologue gives us at the outset, we are still hoping for a happy ending, even though we’ve had 400 years of “we know how this will end, and it isn’t good.”
Mercutio and Benvolio discuss Romeo’s love-stricken behavior, assuming he is still pining for Rosalind (fourth layer of irony). The audience says, “We know something you don’t!”
Alas poor Romeo! he is already dead;
stabbed with a white wench’s black eye;
shot through the ear with a love-song;
“Shot through the ear with a love-song” is brilliant, ironic prose in any era.
All through the play, from Tybalt’s murder to the suicides, the audience knows what is going on, but the characters don’t. That is dramatic irony taken to an extreme and was a contributing factor in the play’s success back in 1594-1595 when it first opened.
But tastes have changed over the 400+ years since that play was written.
I would suggest that nowadays it’s a bad idea to write a prologue explaining the end of the book. That’s the sort of thing that will encourage readers to put the book back on the shelf and purchase one where the outcome is more of a mystery.
But we can still inject irony into our work without being quite so heavy-handed in our writing.
Perhaps we open the story with a scene involving a committee’s conversation about what to do with a plot of land. Should they let it be developed commercially or make it a playground?
In itself, the topic might not be terribly interesting to the reader. However, if we add the fact that the meeting is closed to the public despite the fact that emotions are running high about the outcome, we imply that something shady may be going on. In that scene, we have many opportunities to inject irony in small ways, by committee member names and blatantly ignorant comments they naively (or arrogantly) make.
But what happens if, in the opening paragraph, a woman enters the empty conference room ahead of the meeting and places a backpack under the table? The reader watches as she makes an adjustment to its contents, sets the timer to go off at 14:25 (2:25 pm), and then leaves, being careful to leave no fingerprints.
Now every second that the conversation drags on ratchets up the tension. Each time a committee member gets up to get a glass of water, or make a phone call, and the clock on the wall ticks toward 2:25, you wonder: will they be the one to escape death?
Irony should be a metaphorical backpack lurking under the table, waiting to surprise the reader.
Irony, as an undercurrent, is done exceptionally well in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury uses irony to convey information.
Bradbury challenges us by introducing “firemen” not as those brave people who put out house fires, but as men charged with starting fires and burning all books. The naming of that job title is subtle. The author never resorts to explaining the irony, but it packs a punch when you first read it.
So, in the case of that book, we have “situational irony” delivering information we need, in a way that packs a wallop and promises more to come.
In the 1948 short story, The Lottery, Shirley Jackson wrote about something we typically think of as good. After all, winning the lottery usually means we’ve won money or a wonderful prize. But in Jackson’s story, it’s not about what is won, but what is lost. The irony is that stoning someone to death yearly purges the town of the bad and makes way for the good. ‘Winning’ is not something you want to do in that town.
Dramatic irony adds depth to a story. It works best when done in such a way that the reader understands it but hasn’t been told what to think. Readers like to think for themselves.
“Depth” consists of a multitude of layers we add to a scene. When we talk about adding depth to a scene, we are talking about many things.
Dramatic Irony is a tool we can use to good effect if we are mindful of how we apply it.
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Credits and Attributions:
Connie J. Jasperson is a published poet and the author of nine fantasy novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
Quote from Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1594 - 1595 PD|100.
Portions of this post previously appeared on 26 June 2019 on Life in the Realm of Fantasy, in the article Dramatic Irony: Adding Depth, Connie J. Jasperson, copyright 2019, all rights reserved.