Writers are lovers of drama. Hit us with a fast-paced shoot-out, a heart-rending rejection, or a tragic death scene, and we’re as happy as larks. Because conflict excites readers, we shove as much of it into our books as possible.
Although dramatic irony contains that wonder word, it’s subtler than fight scenes and tear-jerking confessions. Dramatic irony involves manipulating knowledge, not action. If readers learn a secret that gives the story new context, but the character remains oblivious, that’s dramatic irony. By studying both classic and contemporary works, we can discover how hiding the right information infuses emotion into ordinary scenes.
1. Create Laughter
When playful characters grab hold of a covert detail, they’re bound to use it against others. Oftentimes, you won’t need to directly mention the secret because readers will pick up on it.
In Jane Austen’s satire, Northanger Abbey, the virtuous-but-naive Catherine yearns for spooky adventures, and Mr. Tilney can’t resist having fun with that. During one carriage ride, he fabricates a haunting scenario that might unfold at their destination. He’s obviously teasing her, but she takes him seriously. Her literal nature versus his mischievous streak amuses readers and adds charm to their romantic relationship.
This counts as dramatic irony because readers understand from Austen’s tone that the events Mr. Tilney describes are improbable. It’s a tidbit he and readers share but Catherine is blind to, resulting in a comedic scene.
You can generate this type of irony by equipping your character with a visible weakness that others exploit. She could be prone to fantasy like Catherine, pessimistic, or honest to a fault. As long as she has traits readers can relate to, she won’t appear brainless, and the banter between her and the surrounding cast will be entertaining.
What if a character is too shrewd to miss a joke, though? In that case, intentional POV choices can be an alternative.
In Hope Ann’s work-in-progress, Rebel Heir, a guard named Zal tells the protagonist, Jethren, that Wards (people with cool powers) creep him out. The conversation is normal, with one catch: readers have been inside Jethren’s head for a while, so they realize he’s a Ward. Zal is unwittingly mentioning his fear to a Ward. After their exchange, readers hope that Jethren will reveal his identity just to witness Zal’s shock.
This form of irony requires one character to be absent when an important fact is shown. If readers had been in Zal’s POV instead, they never would’ve seen that Jethren is a Ward. Since Jethren displays his powers when Zal isn’t around, we chuckle at his admission that Wards frighten him.
Note that none of the examples above put the characters in jeopardy. The truth might have altered their actions, but Jethren would never hurt Zal, and the same goes for Mr. Tilney’s treatment of Catherine. If a character’s ignorance is harmless, it leads to humor.
When a secret is more serious, the tone—and the consequences—change.
2. Create Sorrow
Humorous irony can lighten the mood, but tragic irony can double the weight of sorrow. If readers are acutely aware that a sad story could have turned into a happy one, they’ll feel a sense of loss.
Langston Hughes masters this approach in his biographical short story, “Salvation.” His younger self sits in a church pew during a revival. Hardened sinners are getting saved left and right until only he remains. He longs to receive the same gift, but he’s waiting for a visitation from Jesus, because that’s how he believes conversion happens. The revivalists pressure him, so he finally walks to the altar. The church celebrates, but later that night when he’s alone, he cries. He lied to everyone at church and is convinced that Jesus isn’t real because He never came.
Did you catch the irony? The boy misunderstands salvation and the congregation is too preoccupied to notice. Readers have the advantage of observing both sides, which deepens the conflict. The little boy would have been spared grief if someone had reached out to him, but readers are helpless to relieve his struggle.
To pull off tragic irony, you need authenticity above all else. The boy is naive, so his confusion is excusable. And the frenzy of the revivalists is familiar to religious and nonreligious folks alike. Since both sets of characters seem true-to-life, so do their problems.
Secondly, you need to draw sorrow from the unattainable solution, which should relate to the character’s arc. Perhaps your character is looking for purpose, but she’s surrounded by people who think pleasure is mankind’s sole pursuit. Or perhaps she’s searching for love among the apathetic or hope among the despairing. When readers know the answer to the conflict, the character’s failure to recognize it becomes more painful.
3. Create Tension
Sometimes a secret can mean the difference between life and death for a character who’s headed toward danger, and readers rip through pages to find out if he’ll reverse course in time.
Action films frequently employ this tactic, but it’s effective in sentimental stories too. In the Christian movie Run the Race, Zach’s brother, Dave, suffers from seizures. During one scene, Dave and Zach are working on opposite sides of a grocery store. Thanks to a camera switch, viewers watch as Dave starts having a seizure. Zach calls out for his brother, and the silence forces him to check aisle after aisle. With each empty one he passes, readers want to shout at him to hurry.
The tension skyrockets because a character the audience loves is at risk, and his brother can’t fly to the rescue when he has no idea that anything is wrong. This places a massive question mark over Dave’s survival.
You can imitate this effect by alternating POVs instead of camera angles. The information one character possesses might not reach another before disaster strikes, which builds uncertainty that tugs readers forward.
Dramatic Irony Adds Layers
In actuality, dramatic irony isn’t about drama. It’s about meaning. When we conceal facts from our characters, we’re changing how they navigate their worlds. When we shroud meaning, characters fill in the gaps with notions of their own.
Their fears can introduce readers to the mercy Catherine and Zal experience in their tales. Their confusion can inspire readers to be more compassionate to prevent despair like Langston’s. And their perseverance in the face of catastrophe, like the situation with Zach and his brother, can show readers the strength of love. Dramatic irony is subtle, but it has the power to shift readers’ perspectives.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.