When hopes are dashed: Dramatic Irony

I have a hard time reading in public, because I’m very… let’s say interactive with my reading. I make faces, I get up and pace, I yell at the characters, I (carefully place a bookmark on my page and then) hurl the book across the room.

It’s such a common practice for me that I sometimes forget that not everybody else acts that way all the time. I was talking to a less violent reader about it, who had this to say:

Stacy: I have done that in two other cases. One: reading Lord of the Rings. Two: reading Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. // It is like the story itself slaps you with an unexpected left hook. And you are all glass jaw and feelings.

Me: I’m curious– which part of the The Lord of the Rings got to you?

Stacy: Sam facing Shelob. // He yells Elvish and it is a miracle that he knows it. // And then Tolkien is all “by the way, this monster is older than Elves and finds the attempt adorably useless”. // And I screamed at Sam because he doesn’t know. // Elves are everything. And good. And like a secret crazy weapon. So good vibes that Sam has that. Then… dashed.

I hear a lot of advice about surprising a reader by doing the unexpected, and about using dramatic irony to build suspense. Usually those pieces of advice are in completely different conversations, but they can come together beautifully to leave the reader completely shattered– as Stacy put it– all glass jaw and feelings.

Yeah, it feels kinda like that. Photo from http://football.ua/galleries/ via Wikimedia Commons
Yeah, it feels kinda like that.
Photo from http://football.ua/galleries/ via Wikimedia Commons
Isn’t it ironic…
By definition, dramatic irony is what you get when the reader knows something that the character doesn’t. You’ll see something big revealed during a prologue, or you’ll have seen Psycho and Silence of the Lambs before watching Bates Motel and Hannibal, and every moment after that is just waiting for the ax to fall on the unwitting characters.
With a situation like Sam’s in The Lord of the Rings, you get something a bit different.
After all this time, the reader has caught on to certain rules. These are the tropes upon which the world (or even the entire genre) is built, and the reader has learned to predict what will come next based on those rules, right along with the character. And then you learn that the context has changed, just in time to watch it all fall apart.
Everything in moderation
I love Tumblr
I love Tumblr
The thing about this technique is that you can’t use it often. Joss Whedon and George R. R. Martin are both famous for their ‘anyone can die’ philosophy– and so while it might have been shocking the first few times a beloved character meets an unfortunate end, after a while the readers stop trusting them. They hold characters at arm’s length and hold pre-emptive funerals for their favorites. But they’re master storytellers; change the rules once too often, and you may lose your credibility to the reader.
I had one particularly bad experience in which we got so many flip-flops between magic and science (“there is magic in this world!” “Just kidding, it’s sufficiently advanced technology!” “Just kidding, it’s actual magic!” “Just kidding, it’s actually technology!”) that it was starting to sound like the author was just making up new rules as they went along, without any plan or consistency, and I gave up entirely.
Some tips
  • Use gut punches like this sparingly– they’re most effective when they’re unexpected.
  • Look at the rhythm of your scenes. Some scenes are obviously building up to a big shock, and so the reader is likely already bracing for impact before it strikes.
  • This is one of those situations where mood whiplash would come in handy.
  • Even if gut punches are effective, they won’t affect everyone equally. Make sure the scene is strong enough to be plausible even if the reader isn’t caught up by shock.
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