“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 native Japanese speakers do not make use of what I’d now call ‘Western’ irony. When a friend came to visit me in Japan, my host mother took her 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 — my Japanese host mother didn’t understand that my Westerner friend was making a joke.
Even the word for ‘irony’ in Japanese is a loan word from English, pronounced ‘aironii’. 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 language has 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 failing to recognise 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 consider how I communicate with my eldest relatives over the years, I avoid 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. 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.Irony and the Modern Psyche
This also explains why Westerns all became anti-Westerns after the Great War, though we still call those dark, pessimistic versions ‘Westerns’ in popular parlance.
THE FUNCTION OF IRONY
Here’s a theory: We tend to be ironic about things which have disappointed us and which we feel we can do nothing about. Irony is our way of coping with it.
Ironic humour is used the same way as any humour is used, as a social bonding exercise as well as a way of determining the social hierarchy in a group. (You don’t know it’s irony? You’re not a part of our group.)
DEFINITIONS OF IRONY
Irony = a meaningful* or significant gap between expectation and outcome.
*Some outcomes are simply ‘incongruous’. There was no preceding expectation. This is not irony. This is ‘incongruity’. The outcome must upset the expectation.
Irony = incongruities from the world of opposites.
Irony = the difference between what is understood and what is meant.
Some ironies only exist in the mind of the audience. Others occur in the mind of the fictional character. Irony can occur 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.
Presentation irony = 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. Typically, a ‘rule’ of crime drama is that the baddie is locked up, justice prevails. Crime story enthusiasts, until that point, had been used to shows in which justice was served.
In order to understand this kind of irony the audience has to be sophisticated. In other words, they have to know what’s come before before appreciating why this story is different. Children, by definition, won’t understand genre subversion.
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 a children’s literature 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. The pacing is very slow, creating a gap between what the paratext of the film promised versus what the audience actually got.
Film trailers more often indulge in intentional subversion. After a brief intro, you’ll hear a needle scratch SFX, 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.
Dramatic irony describes 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, and then work with it. To employ dramatic irony successfully, the storyteller must understand their audience.
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 known as ‘info hiding’.
When characters fail to pick up the most basic of things, long after the audience has grasped everything, the story may be described as a so-called “Idiot Plot“.
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).Critters.org
OPPOSITE OUTCOME IRONY
A character’s action leads to 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 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. The alcohol made him relaxed enough to do it, when he might’ve flipped out had he been sober. This film works with irony in many ways.
In some stories 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. In the common expression, 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 convicted 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. This is a real world example of ‘surprising means to an end’.
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 many better ways to make money than that. The audience knows this, 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 — Many writers drive expend much wasted energy devising 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. 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
All superheroes have ironic backstories. Captain America is a big-boss guy but he was originally weakling and the government made him this way. 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 with similarities to that of Don Draper of Mad Men — he’s a successful businessman who spent his childhood on a polygamous commune and was kicked out by the elders when he hit adolescence and began to serve as a threat to the patriarchs who wanted all the fertile young women for themselves.
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. In pathetic stories (ie. with pathos) which aim to create a warm fuzzy feeling in an audience, a sure fire way to achieve this is by showing an unkind character now acting with kindness.
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 Spider-man 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!’
The terms ‘cosmic irony’ and ‘irony of fate’ are sometimes used to refer to situations in which situational irony is the result of fate, chance, the gods, or some other superhuman force or entity.
[W]hen your mutual friends insist that “Barry’s not RACIST-racist, he just says racist things constantly, as jokes, you’re just being too sensitive!” what they’re really saying is: “Barry is an acceptable amount of racist for us.”Captain Awkward
IRONY IN PICTURE BOOKS
In their book How Picturebooks Work Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott came up with a taxonomy to describe how words and text work together to tell a story. When picture and text do not line up, they say there is ‘ironic distance’ between them. The difference between a picturebook (one word) and another kind of illustrated text: Picture and text must be working together in some way to create something new.
Here is the taxonomy they came up with:
- SYMMETRY: Words and pictures are on an equal footing.
- COMPLEMENTARY: Words and pictures each provide information.
- ENHANCEMENT: Words and pictures each enhance the meaning of the other.
- COUNTERPOINT: Words and pictures tell different stories.
- CONTRADICTION: Beyond different narratives, words and pictures tell the opposite of each other.
Nikolajeva and Scott are talking about the ironic distance between words and pictures in terms of narrative.
There’s another layer of ironic distance which comes from mood (for lack of a better term).
In a NYT review of some illustrated fairytales, Maria Tatar says the following:
Though [Lisbeth] Zwerger’s watercolors are sometimes disturbing, the decorative beauty of her work also functions as an antidote to the violent content of the tales. This dynamic is reversed in Hague’s “Read-to-Me Book of Fairy Tales”: Allison Grace MacDonald’s gentle prose mitigates the ferocity of some of Hague’s illustrations.
A beautiful picture can moderate violent images in a horrific story. Likewise, a sweet, innocent story can be spiced up by ferocious and daring illustrations.
Sometimes publishers commission artwork and realise the art too closely matches the grotesque story. A good example are the illustrations by Rosemary Fawcett which originally accompanied Roald Dahl’s book of poetry, Dirty Beasts. The illustrations are about as freaky as the poems, soon replaced by the looser, sketchier, sunnier illustrations by Quentin Blake which have since become iconic.
IS IT IRONY OR IS IT SOPHISTRY?
The irony defence is often used by people who want to get out of taking responsibility for their words and actions. Be wary of someone who says, “I was just being ironic!” To recap:
Irony: the expression of ones meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.
Sophistry: the use of clever but false arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.