Friday, March 29, 2013

Oh, the Irony: Working With Dramatic Irony

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of my favorite techniques is dramatic irony, which itself is a little ironic since I've discovered I love first person. Harder to pull of dramatic irony when there's only one POV.

So what is dramatic irony?

Basically, it's when the reader knows more about what's going on than the characters, and they see the meaning or truth where the characters do not.

This is quite effective in multiple POV stories where events happening in one POV affect another. Readers can see two (or more) points racing toward each other and they just know the crash is gonna be good. You can play up the tension between the POVs as well as within them. This can also help combat the hanging problem we talked about a few weeks ago.

Some examples of this...

Say you have a three-person POV science fiction story. One POV is Jack, the captain of a local cargo ship that makes regular runs through the system. The other is Miranda, the second in command on a space station Jack often stops at (and they have a romantic thing going on). Third is Xitic, the alien cook on a warship headed right for the system Jack and Miranda live in.

We know Xitic is heading toward the station and something bad is going on, but not exactly what. Xitic is a cook after all, and not privy to what the command staff has planned. But she can overhear enough to know something big is up.

Jack is out there flying around, and he hears stuff. Random distress signals, problems with colonies or other stations. Maybe some debris from a ship or two. Is it Xitic's people?

Miranda has access a lot of information on the station, and she hears about space battles, missing transports, colonies crying for help. But it's spread out and not just where Xitic's ship is.

Now, here's where dramatic irony can be super fun. You can show issues going on in all three POVs, but since they each only get a piece of the puzzle, the reader can start to put the whole picture together before the characters know what's going on. Readers will see that Jack discovering there's a ship out there attacking folks is true, but it's not the ship he thinks it is. Miranda sees the overall span of the problem, so readers know it's not just Xitic and her ship. Xitic gets enough details to prove her ship is not the one doing the attacking.

Something is going on and it's big. You can show all kinds of things without ever giving away the secret because not every POV has all the information. But eventually, the reader is going figure out what all these pieces mean and see the real threat: An alien force Xitic's people are currently at war with. But readers will also see how on edge all three POVs are, and they'll know when they all meet up things are not going to go well. Half the fun will be seeing what goes wrong before they figure out the threat is bigger than all of them.

Playing one side against the other gives you a lot more opportunities for conflict, and even when the reader knows what's going on, you can still be unpredictable because the characters still are clueless enough to make mistakes and misunderstand true motives.

This is so much fun it makes me want to write something in third person multiple POV.

Find out more about conflict in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
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Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. hehe just imagining all the little plots and possiblities from something like that is exciting! your advice is awesome- thanks! :)

  2. Hats off to you for this post! I find 3rd person very hard to write, but you offer convincing reasons for why 3rd person can engage the reader and heighten the tension.

  3. Great post! It sort of brings to mind a problem I've been having. How do you decide when to go for dramatic irony and when to go for the surprise?

  4. Thank you for explaining it so clearly. I'm a big fan of dramatic irony, but knowing EXACTLY what it is has always been a little confusing. I know it when I see it, usually. :)
    I wonder if dramatic irony could be pulled off with just one point of view in first person. I mean, if the narrator tells the reader something than they obviously know it... hm. It could be a fun puzzle to figure out though. :D

  5. Interesting question Bethany. I wonder if unreliable narrators dip into it a little. They saw one thing but the reader soon figures out they can't be trusted and has to figure things out in other ways. Not the same thing, but maybe a second cousin of dramatic irony.

    Jane, that's a fun question and I think it'll make a good post of its own! Short answer for you: I think it depends on what info you want to share with the reader. If you want them to be surprised, don't drop as many hints. If you want them to figure it out, add more hints and work the irony angle.

  6. And some readers pick up on hints more quickly than others. There's a popular UF series where I had an inkling on the identity of the narrator's dad after the first book, which was confirmed after the second, and some folk were still clueless until the third book spelled it out for them.

    Re: first person and this sort of thing, it's completely possible to have the first person narrator be wrong. I could name one fantasy novel in particular that I think does a fantastic job of making the narrator be completely wrong without seeming like an idiot. I also like doing that to my own narrators. ^_^

  7. Will you please write this book about Xitic and Jack and Miranda? You've got me all worried about how it ends now... ;)

    Great post, and fun explanation of Dramatic Irony.

  8. Love the post, Janice! But I don't need to tell you that this is my bread and butter. Multiple POVs, unreliable narrators, yeah! Love it; thanks.

  9. Oh you can definitely have your first person narrator be wrong (I do that all the time). I'm not sure that works as DI though. But if the reader sees stuff the narrator doesn't, and the narrator is wrong and the readers is right, then I guess it could.

    LOL Jess. That is one downside to the blog. I make up plots as examples and sometimes I DO want to actually write the story.

  10. I read a fabulous book with an unreliable narrator a while back, can't remember if it was 1st or 3rd, but definitely a single POV: Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story by Carolyn Turgeon. Very cool how she did it. I started out believing what the narrator did, but over the story, began to question her perspective. But the questioning didn't make me lose any connection to the character. It just made me feel for her even more. Now I want to go find that book and read it again.

  11. Great post Janice! When did we ditch zombies and go into space w/ aliens? :)

  12. LOL, don't worry Shorty, I haven't abandoned Bob or the zombies. The space thing was just an easier way to explain it :)

  13. THanks for explaining this, when I read the post above this I was not sure what dramatic irony was.

  14. That first person novel I mentioned earlier was Poison Study by Maria Snyder. There's a scene wherein the MMC does something that the narrator thinks is proof that he isn't interested in her romantically. However, the reader knows it's proof that he does like her—the narrator misinterprets it because, well, her previous experiences with guys have been very bad.

    So it is a case wherein the reader knows something the narrator does not. ^_^

  15. I would definitely say that an unreliable narrator in a first person story can entail dramatic irony. Ishiguro's Remains of the Day is a classic example.

  16. Carradee, yeppers :) And that probably up'ed the tension because the reader knows they're misunderstanding each other.

    Margaret, cool, thanks for the example!

  17. Ha! Now that is some fun irony!