SPOILERS: King Lear, Alien 3, Harsh Times
Recently I was talking with Uber-Agent Julian Friedmann and mentioned how much I love Yves Lavandier’s book Writing Drama; Segnor Friedmann replied how much he loves the book’s section on dramatic irony, lamenting the fact that so few screenwriters actually use this fantastic device. His comments really struck a chord, so I think I’ll have a good look at what makes dramatic irony so great.
First off however, what is dramatic irony? Well, this dictionary definition sums it up pretty well:
Dramatic irony is when the words and actions of the characters of a work of literature have a different meaning for the reader than they do for the characters. This is the result of the reader having a greater knowledge than the characters themselves.
Of course, Shakespeare was one of the kings of dramatic irony. Any A Level English Literarture student can tell you of the various uses of the word and meaning “blindness” in King Lear: how King Lear is metaphorically blind to Goneril and Regan’s faults and how that leads not only to his own downfall, but to his old friend Gloucester’s literal blindness when his eyes are gouged out. One of Goneril’s sickly sweet proclamations of supposed love for her father towards the beginning of the play is “I love you more than eyesight.” There’s plenty more in that vein too.
Basically then, if an audience KNOWS that no good will come of a certain event or character, this can add to the drama. Think of every time you have seen an antagonist in his *true* colours, only to act nice as pie to the protagonist, maybe getting closer and closer to them… Perhaps they even have a relationship. Yikes! All the while the protagonist is completely oblivious of their other half’s evilness, whilst we the audience know full well that antagonist is up to all sorts of schenanigans, maybe even plotting that protagonist’s downfall.
Without that prior knowledge that the antagonist is up to no good, all we have before they start acting up is a love story with no obstacles. Boy meets Girl, they have a lovely time. Yawn. Where’s the conflict? Where’s the suspense? Where’s the jeopardy?? Sure in the second half Guy goes ballistic with a chainsaw and chases Girl up Marylebone High street, but it seems to come out of nowhere – and isn’t that a bit of a genre change, romance to killer-thriller in one fell swoop??
However, if Boy meets Girl and we have that love story BUT we know already that Boy is actually a full blown serial killer, then immediately we have that conflict, that suspense, that jeopardy. When is she going to find the dead bodies in the cellar?? When is she going to realise this guy is too good to be true? What will happen when she does? And conversely, if this guy is killing loads of people, why is he sparing her? Perhaps he really does love her… Which makes us wonder even more what the hell will happen if he discovers that she is planning to make a run for it and/or to take him down, baby. Nooooooooooooo.
But that’s not the only type of dramatic irony you can play with. Sometimes a character will do something or neglect something that means they doom themselves. One of my favourite ever stories that shows this device brilliantly has to be Somerset Maugham’s “Death Speaks”:
There was a Merchant in Baghdad who sent his Servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling and said “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”
The Merchant lent him his horse and the Servant mounted it and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.
Then the Merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my Servant when you saw him this morning?”
“That was not a threatening gesture,” I said, “it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
Often in short stories like Maugham’s, this touch of irony will be called a “twist in the tale”. Though many screenwriters attempt twists in their screenplays, very few specs I’ve seen have pulled this off – often because of lack of set up. If we only have half the twist (usually in the resolution), it’s no longer a twist, it’s only half there: the significance is lost. The notion that a character actually physically puts their own downfall into play with something they’ve done themselves (or not done) is something very neglected in specs.
When considering the seemingly all-but-forgotten Harsh Times in this post on plot construction, I pointed out that nothing in that film would have happened had Christian Bale’s character Jim not been sacked from his police training for his anger management issues (those same issues by the way that will blow up in his face in the resolution, incidentally). This leads him to smoke the marjuana that he then has to fake a piss test for for Homeland Security… And so it goes on. One event is piled on top of one another, so we are left in no doubt as to HOW far Jim falls by the end of the movie. He still could have been okay, even having been sacked – if he just hadn’t smoked those drugs. That single action puts into play his downfall: and we know it, right from the first toke and that phone rings, that he is doomed… Even though he so desperately tries to turn it around, we just know he will fail.
Of course, Dramatic Irony is not always about being blatant: you don’t have to set everything up very obviously, with a wolf in sheep’s clothing like in my example at the beginning of this post. Sometimes the greatest moments in movies come from things we perceive in our peripheral vision. I will never forget the first time I became aware of the notion of dramatic irony: I was approximately thirteen years old and watching Alien 3 of all movies. Those of you who have seen this movie will know Ripley disposes of the creature by turning on sprinklers. Not very scary, except for the fact it is covered in hot lead… The water rapidly cools it and because of its beetle-like carapace, it explodes into a million pieces. I recall thinking that was a cool variation on the whole explode-the-monster idea, only without an actual bomb. And then, because I was a strange kid prone to watching films twice, three or even four times in one sitting whilst my parents were out, I promptly rewatched it.
And noticed the bucket in the corridor during the fire scene around about the mid point.
It was just a bucket, a single shot. But when the convicts were barbequed in the corridors when attempting to burn the creature out of the crevices, Ripley and Dillon have to turn on the sprinklers to save them (introducing the idea that even though nothing else works in the prison planet, the sprinklers do), water came down on a hot bucket abandoned in the corridor.
And it bursts and cracks right open, just like the Alien will in the resolution.
I remember rewinding that moment on my battered VCR, over and over: watching that bucket break open, confused. They’d just given away the ending! How could that be?
But of course, they hadn’t “given it away” at all: on first viewing, I had not truly “seen” that shot, merely perceived it. When the Alien goes on to explode when the water hits it in the same way then, I merely accepted that it was possible because I had already seen it without seeing it.
Often scribes will worry they are being too on-the-nose with their visuals, that they’re giving too much away. But it’s actually a lot harder to give stuff away than you think: it is possible for an audience to actually SEE stuff and not see it. More than that however, a crafty use of dramatic irony can really aid your storytelling: a single moment like that bucket, a single piece of dialogue like Goneril’s proclamation, can HELP you tell your story and prevent your reader from writing those dreaded words on their report: “This event/ending just seems to have come out of nowhere…”
While we’re on the subject – favourite endings? And just so you know, Kaiser Sose and Se7en is banned. 😉
Read an excerpt of Yves’ book Writing Drama about DRAMATIC IRONY here.
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