Friday, June 04, 2010

How Do You Know When to Use What?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.


  1. Yes, you will indeed know what works best for your story. Try writing it one way first, then try writing it another way. Often the version that was easier or more fun to write is the one that works best & the one you should go with...

  2. I loved Aprilynne's answer to the question. :D

    Great post!

  3. Great post. And sometimes I think it's just instinct. Have a great weekend.

  4. My CPs are awesome, so I count on them to let me know is something isn't working. But yes, I'd love to have an editor with a purple pencil to guide me. :)

  5. Eventually, (you hope) it becomes 'organic' so your gut knows what's right, or what works best. But you often have to try it several ways before you can decide.

  6. I like to exploit both irony and surprise, usually by having each character have a very clear, yet conflicting idea of what the answer is to some critical question. That way I can drop more hints about the real answer to the question, while keeping readers be distracted over the questions of "which character is right?" and "how will his/her convictions mess everyone up?" Usually, though, it will turn out that none of the characters knew the real answer.

  7. This is probably the hardest thing, isn't it? Sometimes it just feels like we have to stumble around for a while until we find the right answers. By the way, I absolutely loved your posts on plot!

  8. I’m all for leaving clues of some kind. But leaving the clues is tough because you don’t want them into your face or too subtle that no one will ever know it was a clue to begin with. Then there is the question of how many clues do you leave.

  9. Not an easy choice at all. I'm kind of using both in my primary WIP. Some stuff is dramatic irony, but I'm still holding back a few hinted at secrets to have something to surprise the reader with at the end. With some luck and a whole lot of effort, I'll manage to pull it off successfully.

  10. Excellent post. I think a lot of is instinct. And if you don't have that instinct, by the end, after some hard work, it becomes instinct.

    But sometimes I think we need someone to give us that extra push, sometimes we're too close to the story to be objective enough to make the hard decisions.

    I do, however, agree wholeheartedly with your statement about how it's the story that matters.

  11. Juliette makes a good point, in that it isn't always an "either or" situation. Both are valid tools in the writer's toolbox and if using both makes the story better, use both. That would make a good post actually!

  12. You're 100% on the ball with this post. The story ultimately dictates what makes it to the final draft. I'm editing my debut novel now. Over the past six months, I've deleted entire characters, changed character genders, used parts from deleted characters in other characters, changed the beginning, changed the ending, changed the working title twice, word count went from 110,000 - 80,000. Moved three chapters from the middle to the second book of the series etc.

  13. When I started my novel-in-progress, I rewrote my two 'trigger' scenes (the ones that spawned the story for me) in multiple ways, varying the tense and POV until something felt right. But I had to study scene A and scene B and start figuring out what my story was before anything did. The POVs actually worked better inverse to what I'd expected.

    I figure that no matter how many hints you leave, some readers will still be surprised at the big reveal, so why not fret over what it's 'supposed' to be?

    I love Ms. Pike's answer!

  14. Kudos, Mick. It's not always easy to rip apart a draft like that. I'm doing a bit of that now with Shifter 3, and I always get excited when I see the story tightening and getting better as I rip.