“Given a long enough time, of course, a wide enough frame, there is nothing said or done, ever, that isn’t ironic in the end.”
— Madame Morrible, Wicked, Gregory Maguire
These notes draw heavily from a Narrative Breakdown podcast called The Power Of Irony.
See also: All Good Stories Are Ironic from Cockeyed Caravan blog.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF IRONY
Irony In South East Asia
Irony isn’t used the same way globally. I discovered when I lived in Japan as a teenager that the Japanese language does (or did) not have much facility for verbal irony. When a friend came to visit my host mother, they went to visit a shrine. At the entrance of the shrine were trinkets for sale. My friend held up a tiny pair of shoes and said, “Do these suit me?” My host mother said, “No no! Too small!” which is more than a language barrier — she didn’t understand my friend was making a joke. Even the word for ‘irony’ in Japanese is a loan word from English. There is also a native Japanese word (皮肉) pronounced ‘hiniku’ which literally translates as ‘skin meat’. The word comes from the four character idiom, which Japanese have borrowed from China over the centuries: 皮肉骨髄 “skin meat bones marrow”. In Chinese zen buddhism bones and marrow took on the meaning of ‘essential’, whereas skin and meat became synonymous with ‘superficial’. (Beauty is skin deep etc. in English.) From there, 皮肉 was also used as a word for criticising faults and defects, which stems from not recognising the true nature of something.
So although Japanese does have its own native word for irony, it has narrower usage. 皮肉 works best for cynicism/sarcasm or dark/pessimistic irony, rather than the lighthearted variety.
Irony In The West
Irony may not go back as far as you think. When I think of how I communicate with my eldest relatives over the years, I void sarcasm and irony because that’s not the way my grandparents communicated. Like my Japanese host mother in the 1990s, they simply didn’t get it.
Paul Fussell has a theory that irony only became common currency after World War 1.
Before the war, certain themes and beliefs were common throughout western society. Class structure was well established, themes of bravery and nationalism were well entrenched, and there was an overwhelming belief in the continual and ultimate progression of mankind.1 All of these common beliefs were shattered by The Great War. In their place, a deep sense of irony developed. Skepticism, despair, and fatalism became the new norms. This is why Paul Fussell suggests that the irony found in contemporary World War I literature helped to shape the modern psyche.
DEFINITIONS OF IRONY
Irony is a meaningful* gap between expectation and outcome.
Irony = incongruities from the world of opposites.
*Some outcomes are simply ‘incongruous’. There was no preceding expectation. This is not irony. This is ‘incongruity’. The outcome must upset the expectation.
Some of these ironies only exist in the mind of the audience. Others occur in the mind of the character. Irony can happen on many different levels.
Ideally, irony creates meaning. For example, a story in which the best minds are bringing America down is ironic because the audience would hope and expect that the best minds are helping America to succeed.
The gap between the audience’s expectations and the outcome in the story.
Genre Subversion — When the audience is used to the tropes of a particular genre, but the story throws in some unexpected ones. Writers of the series Homicide subverted genre expectations by sometimes having the bad guy walk free due to insufficient evidence. Crime story enthusiasts, until that point, had been used to shows in which justice was served. In order to get this kind of irony the audience has to be reasonably sophisticated. In other words, they have to know what’s come before before appreciating why this story is different. Children won’t get this kind of irony.
Narrative Convention Subversion — Seinfeld characters never grow or change. There is no moral lesson. This played with the conventions of narrative which preceded that show — until Seinfeld, even sit-coms delivered a conservative family message. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is an example of a character who never grows or changes, and young audiences love him for it.
Promotional Subversion — Sometimes this is unintentional, such as Shyalaman’s film trailer for The Village promised a thriller. But The Village is not the thriller the film trailer suggests. Film trailers more often indulge in intentional subversion. After a brief intro, you’ll hear a needle scratch, and realise that this is not the sweet rom-com initially proposed but a madcap romp etc. (More recently The Martian won awards for ‘Best Comedy‘.) More recently still we have mother!, which can be considered a failure if audiences hate it even if critics love it. “While mother! looks and smells like a horror film, it’s essentially something crazier, Lynchian, and completely Aronofsky-esque”. For more on that, see this post.
Audience knowledge versus characters’ knowledge. In a good story, every single scene has at least a little dramatic irony. Hitchcock and Spielberg are well-known for their ability to know what the audience is thinking at any given moment. To employ dramatic irony successfully, this is a must.
Uses for dramatic irony:
- Building suspense
- Creating a misunderstanding, which can then drive an entire plot
- To make the audience feel smart, and in cahoots with the narrator rather than the characters
- For generating schadenfreude, as in Road Runner, when the audience knows that Wily Coyote’s traps are not going to work
- To create empathy
Placing the audience in the position of Dramatic Irony does not eliminate all curiosity. The result of showing the audience what will happen is to cause them to ask, “How and why did these characters do what I already know they did? Dramatic Irony encourages the audience to look more deeply into the motivations and causal forces at work in the characters’ lives. This is why we often enjoy a fine film more, or at least differently, on second viewing. We not only flex the curiosity about facts and outcome, we now concentrate on inner lives, unconscious energies, and the subtle workings of society.
– Robert McKee, Story
Superior Position Is A Filmmakers’ Word For Dramatic Irony
Superior position is the [filmmaking] term for telling your reader or audience something that some of the characters in the story don’t know. This gives you one of your most powerful structural tools: anticipation. When we know who and where the killer is before the hero does, or when we know the hero is keeping a big secret, we will keep turning the page to see what happens when that conflict appears, or that secret is revealed.
— Michael Hauge
Dramatic irony done badly is referred to as ‘info hiding’.
Withholding crucial information from the reader that the POV knows. Used to create cheap tension without having a necessarily tense plot.
“Bob felt all his energy focused as he pried off the heavy lid from the sarcophagus. Bob knew from the hieroglyphics what he’d find. Upon seeing its wondrous contents, he suddenly knew how he would wreak his revenge on Anne. He heard a noise. ‘Keep back; you know me — you know I’ll shoot,’ Bob warned the advancing figure.”
This jars the reader out of the POV’s view, reminding them there’s an Author out there pulling the strings.
Solution: tell the reader outright anything the POV sees/knows that is of relevance; if it’s not a tense item in itself, chances are it will be a letdown when the reader does find out, so make the thing itself tense, and let the reader share it with the POV.
Alternatively, if you need to keep something hidden, present it from a POV who can’t find out what’s in there either; then the reader is not reminded they’re not the POV (though the hidden thing itself should still be interesting and worthy of being hidden).
OPPOSITE OUTCOME IRONY
A person’s action producing an outcome that’s the opposite of what’s intended. In any scene in which a character has an ironic expectation of what’s going to happen (the character expects the opposite of what actually does happen), the audience must know of this irony beforehand, otherwise we won’t identify with the character. That seems to be a rule.
For example, the film Flight starring Denzel Washington is piloted by a drunkard, but actually it’s possibly precisely because he was drunk that he was able to land the plane safely. This film works with irony in many ways.
Maybe the effort a person puts into something does not match up with the outcome. Someone puts in a lot of effort organising a birthday party, then no one turns up.
A negative may lead to a positive. Classically, lemons are turned into lemonade. The Apartment is a film which is full of this kind of irony. Something bad happens and it turns into something good for the main character. The universe is out to thwart him. This results in satire about the spirit of the age: We are living in a topsy-turvy time when up is down and down is up.
SURPRISING MEANS TO AN END
In order to bring Al Capone to justice, lawyers got him on the relatively minor charge of tax evasion. If you watch quite a bit of true crime (or work for the police force) it becomes clear that police detectives are quite often required to bring a criminal in on a lesser charge while they find a way to hold them for the main offence.
The Producers is a film about some producers of a musical who try to make money by making the worst broadway musical ever. There are lots of better ways to make money than that, the audience knows, yet that’s what the producers of the fictional musical do, to hilarious end. This film produced the phrase ‘creative accounting’, an inherently ironic phrase. Yet there’s truth in it. This is an irony that reveals a deeper truth.
Intrinsic irony/Logical absurdity – eg. a person attending his own funeral, as in Tom Sawyer.
Ironic backstory — A lot of writers try to drive themselves crazy trying to devise a backstory for their main character, when in fact the audience can usually guess how they wound up there. Usually it’s a believable series of events, but the only time you should ever reveal backstory is if it’s an ironic backstory.
Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement .. now they wanted to kill each other.
— Lorrie Moore
Captain America is a big-boss guy but he was originally weakling and the government made him this way. All superheroes have ironic backstories. They’re the last guys anyone would expect to have suddenly morphed into heroes. X-Men First Class did a great job of revealing that ironically each superhero had started off as the opposite. But it’s not just superheroes who have ironic backstories. Walter White is a riff on the modern-day superhero; his ironic backstory is that he has been a nerdy, law-abiding chemistry teacher for many years. (Marie’s backstory is the weak point of Breaking Bad — her kleptomania exists for no real reason other than to make her seem even more annoying to the audience, and switch our loyalties to Hank.) Another character with an ironic backstory is Don Draper, who is ironically living the glamorous life you see in the ads, but was actually brought up in a brothel. The backstory comes out around episode six, which some believe to be a bit too late — a proportion of the audience has already stopped watching by that stage. In Big Love, Bill Henrickson has an ironic backstory similar to that of Don Draper — he’s a successful businessman who spent his childhood on a polygamous commune and was kicked out by the elders when he hit adolescence.
A pattern emerges:
- A now successful character was once destitute/an underdog
- A now criminal character was once square and law abiding
The rags to riches story is centuries old. The focus on the riches phase of a character’s life is a relatively new innovation. Likewise, Breaking Bad broke new storytelling ground by creating Walter White, who has since been seen in similar iterations such as Marty Byrde in Ozark.
Reputation vs Action — A character is known for acting one way but then acts the opposite way.
Incompetence vs Confidence — ironic character presumptions. A person acting with complete incompetence while mucking everything up. Will Farrell has made a whole career out of that. George Costanza is another one.
The Born Unlucky Trope is what TV Tropes call it.
Giving someone a taste of their own medicine — e.g. if you caught Spiderman in a web. Bart Simpson has joined something like the Boy Scouts and says, ‘What are you going to do, learn to make chairs?’ Then he sits down and the chair breaks beneath him. He says, ‘D’oh! Stupid dramatic irony!’