A commenter asked a great question this week, and it's similar to one I heard at a book signing Wednesday for authors Kim Harrison, Aprilynne Pike, and Ellen Schreiber.
How do you know...X
The commenter asked how do you know when to use dramatic irony or surprise readers. The audience member at the signing asked how do you know what to cut out. (Which Aprilynne Pike had the best answer ever. "My editor tells me. In purple pencil.")
This is a tough question no matter what's being asked, because a lot of times it's hard to answer. How do yo know what to cut out? Whatever isn't working for the story. But how do you know what isn't working? It's different for every single story. Even within the same story it can be different.
I'm going to go back to the commenter's question here, because it's the easiest one to answer and really does cover the overall answer for these types of questions.
How do you know when to use dramatic irony versus surprising the reader?
It all depends on what you're trying to do with the story. If you want to surprise the reader, you'd hold back details and set it up so they don't see the surprise coming (but then can see the oh-so-subtle clues you left so this surprise fits). You wouldn't want to leave enough clues for readers to figure it out ahead of time if that would spoil the story.
Now, if you're unsure which one is better, it again falls to story and what you want. If you want to shock the reader and knock them for a loop, a surprise might be the better call. If you want to build tension and get them anticipating something, dramatic irony might be the way to go. You'd look at what each device accomplishes and then decide which works best for the story at that moment.
This is true of almost any "how do you...?" type question. It all depends on what you're trying to accomplish. If you're editing, you cut out what doesn't move the story along. If you're struggling with back story, you add only what serves the story. How many POVs to use? What number would best tell the story?
"What works best for the story" will guide you every time, because the story is what matters.
I know how frustrating this can be. Because if you knew what was best for the story you wouldn't have the question, right?
This isn't necessarily true. A lot of times we get stuck on the plot, or the premise, or the character, and we struggle to find the answer there. But the problem might be with the plot, or the premise, or the character, and we need to step back and look at the bigger picture to figure how how to do something. Story is the big picture. The other stuff is just the pieces that go into making that story.
And sometimes, you need to figure it out for yourself. People can guide you and suggest things, but that final click of understanding has to come from you. It can take a while to get there sometimes, but if you keep trying, you'll figure it out.
And then you'll know how.