Wednesday, August 08, 2018

How Dramatic Irony Can Heighten Tensions and Strengthen Plots

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Dramatic irony is a fun way to create tension in a story while building a strong plot.

Dramatic irony is a wonderful tool to create mystery and tension in a novel. Not only does it allow you to convey vital information, it lets readers in "on the secret' and makes them feel like they're part of the story. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, dramatic irony is when the reader knows information but the characters don’t, and some of the story's tension comes from wondering what will happen when those characters finally meet or realize the truth.

(Here's more on dramatic irony)

There’s a lot of fun for readers to imagine how things would be different if only the characters knew what they knew (this works especially well in the romance department). It's also fun to play one character off another, which can add a nice layer of mystery since the reader might not be sure which character is telling (or knows) the truth and which one is wrong.

I did a lot of this with the new book, and not only has it been fun from a narrative standpoint, the two sides have also been quite helpful from a plotting standpoint.

For example, I had a situation where an event (a break-in) has occurred that affects both my point of view characters differently.

In POV-1, the character is part of the investigation. He knows things about this break-in that the other character doesn’t.

In POV-2, the character has things to hide, but she’s not connected to the break-in at all.

(Here's more on using secrets to add tension to a scene)

One obvious plotting idea is to make POV-1 suspect POV-2, but that’s no fun because these two are friends and potential love interests for each other. Putting them into conflict in the first act wastes an opportunity for bigger conflict later in the story when the stakes are higher.

It also lacks tension because readers know POV-2 didn’t do it, so watching POV-1 chase a dead end is boring. A stronger plot option is to cause trouble with these two character in an indirect way. Let their goals butt heads, but not them personally, and dramatic irony helps raise the tensions and stakes, because readers know how close these two are coming to discovering what each other is really doing--which is bad for both of them.

It's not about "will they discover who broke in?" but "will the investigation lead POV-1 to discover that POV-2 has been lying to him?"

POV-1 discovers a suspect and acts to prove that person committed the burglary.

POV-2 is connected to the suspect. She needs to protect that person to protect her own secrets.

The suspect is in the perfect position to connect these two goals and cause trouble, without actually putting the two POV characters into direct conflict.

POV-1 can pursue the suspect, unaware that he’s going to cause serious trouble for POV-2, who can't be exposed helping the suspect.

POV-2 can try to protect the suspect, unaware that the more she does the more she risks exposing her own secrets, which will be very bad for POV-1.

(Here's more on the different types of tension)

The sheer joy of it is that both POV characters also want to protect each other, and their actions are motivated by that. So by protecting one another, they’re actually putting each other in so much more danger than if they’d done nothing.

And readers know it.

They're aware what both sides are doing and why, and they know how bad this is going to be when those two sides crash into each other. It’s inevitable that they’ll find out about it, but the question is when. And wondering when helps keep the tension high, especially when everything the characters so adds more trouble to the pile, and will make it worse when the truth finally comes out.

Not only is this tons of fun to write, but it’s adding layers and twists and turns to the plot to keep it unpredictable and interesting. As you work on your own plots, even if they’re not multi-POV stories, look for:
  • Opportunities for other characters to act in ways to be helpful, but that actually cause trouble
  • A common person or goal that has very different effects on different characters
  • Places where you can share information with the reader, but keep the characters in the dark
  • Places where misunderstandings can cause trouble (but not in a cheesy sitcom way)
  • Spots where misguided intentions create the opposite desired effect
Seeing the crash coming is often more compelling than a sudden crash from nowhere. If you’re looking to craft a little tension to your plots and add a few twists and turns, playing with dramatic irony could be just what you’re looking for.

Do you use dramatic irony in your writing?  What about your plotting?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

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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*Originally published April 2011.


  1. I usually have two different POV of views, and one of the ways I keep the conflict going is doing just this!

    I really like your idea of letting them help each other, but it actually making things worse overall. I am definitely going to bookmark this post.

    Do you add this in while you're writing the book? Or is this something you look at while editing? Maybe both?

  2. More excellent plotting advice! This is really helpful. I may have to print this out and keep it in my notebook. Thanks, Janice.

    IMHO, keeping characters in the dark doesn't work as well with a single POV, especially 1st person. Most of the ideas in that last bulleted list can work fine, but not the third one. With 1st person, you can't reveal information to the reader and keep the character in the dark without making the character seem—a little slow. That really bugged me in CATCHING FIRE.

  3. This is great! I'm just plotting out a new book now, so very timely for me--thanks!

  4. My mind is a-whirr with possibilities! Although I'm writing in the first person, I'll find a way to make this rock. I love it Janice when you do writing posts that get the juices flowing....which is most always. Liz

  5. Elizabeth: A little of both. Some stuff I know, others appear as I write. I jump back and forth a lot as new things pop up that I can tie back into something I wrote previously. And I'm sure I'll have more things to tie together once I have the first draft done.

    Ben: Yep, it's a real challenge to keep a first person POV in the dark about stuff. What I've found that works fairly well, is to have them notice things that have no real context yet, then later let them put the pieces together. Some readers will pick up on things early on and know the answer before the POV. But you're right, you can't leave them dumb too long or they just look stupid.

    Elle: Most welcome!

    Liz: Awesome! I love it when that happens.

  6. Dramatic irony is one of my favorite plotting devices. I've used it quite a bit in my romantic comedies. It helps that I usually write in multiple POVs. Don't know if it would work in a single POV story, though.

    1. That's a great genre for it!

      I doubt it could since there's no other person to reveal information, unless it was something well-known for readers. Such as, it took place during a particular time period and the reader knows what historical event is bearing down, but the character doesn't.

  7. I'm trying to introduce dramatic irony at the moment without making the POV characters appear stupid. The easiest character to do this with is the reckless hot headed one... he notices things but doesn't over analyse. Now I'm wondering of the other POVs are too observant!

    My favourite example of dramatic irony is Oedipus. We all know what will happen but we keep reading the play because everything poor Oedipus does brings him closer to fulfilling the prophecy.

    1. Great example. An old mystery writer trick is to hide the detail in the middle of the paragraph. Readers pay more attention to the beginnings and endings of paragraphs. :) We can sneak clues by them more easily that way.