NOTE: this article contains spoilers for Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, Breaking Bad and Schindler’s List.
Singer Alanis Morissette famously complained that rain on her wedding day was ironic when of course it was simply bad luck. But to be fair to her, irony is one of the most misunderstood devices in storytelling. It is also very, very difficult to write.
To my mind, the most satisfying uses of dramatic irony involve those where the central quest of the protagonist evolves in an ironic way. For instance, if the protagonist sets out to achieve one thing, yet throughout the course of the story achieves the exact opposite. As a result they either become a happier and better person, perhaps seeing their original aim as foolish or deplorable. Or else they find that their actions result in the very thing they feared or set out to avoid in the first place.
I would say mastering irony is a very noble goal, even though it is fiendishly tricky, because if you can the results are often amazing. A central “ironic arc” (or ironic ascension, as Robert McKee calls it) can work brilliantly in a screenplay, novel, play or television programme. Here is an outstanding example from each of the above mediums.
Theatre: Macbeth – An obvious choice from Mr Shakespeare, but one that illustrates my point. Macbeth’s actions are set in motion as a result of his consultation with the witches. Had he disregarded their prophecies, his ambitions and desires would have been fulfilled in any case, since King Duncan already favoured him, naming him Thane of Cawdor and heir to the throne. Instead, the famous bloody tragedy ensues.
Novel: The Great Gatsby– Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is another obvious choice. Gatsby’s delusional, doomed quest to win Daisy is not merely an unwise or futile obsession. It is the very thing that ultimately destroys him. There are so many moments that underscore this. For instance, the way Gatsby sits up all night making sure Tom doesn’t hurt Daisy after the yellow car incident, when in fact Daisy is making up with Tom, showing yet again how disloyal she is and how she simply isn’t worth Gatsby’s efforts. Obviously Gatsby gallantly takes the blame for the yellow car incident to protect Daisy – another irony which leads directly to his demise.
Television: Breaking Bad – This was a truly extraordinary series. What struck me most was not the brilliance of the direction or performances, or the way in which cliché is so studiously avoided, but Walter White’s astonishingly ironic character arc. Rarely has a descent into evil been so darkly funny, so hideously bone-chilling and so utterly, utterly convincing. It is positively Shakespearean. White starts secretly manufacturing crystal meth simply to pay his medical bills and provide for his family after a cancer diagnosis, but this gradually deteriorates into full blown megalomania, and by the end he has completely lost sight of his original reasons for doing what he did. Nor was what he did even necessary in the first place, since rich friends offered to pay his medical bills, but Walt’s pride wouldn’t allow for that. There is a rich vein of irony in many of the subplots too, but the main plot really does hit the bulls-eye in that regard.
Film: Schindler’s List – Obviously this was a book before it was a film, but Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece is a phenomenal adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s original text, based on the true story of Oscar Schindler. Schindler was a member of the Nazi Party who came to Poland to profit from Jewish slave labour. But over time, as he saw the level of persecution against the Jews, he systematically bankrupted himself, saving as many as he could by bribing officials to keep them in his factories and out of the gas chambers. By the end of the war he was broke, but obviously he had achieved something far greater than financial gain. It is worth noting here that screenplays with ironic character arcs seem to do rather well at the Oscars.
Mastering irony is extremely difficult, and quite honestly any ironic resonance in my own novels is mostly achieved by accident. When he read an early draft of my soon to be released novel Children of the Folded Valley, my father approvingly noted certain ironies in the plot. I must confess I hadn’t noticed them, but obviously I played it cool and insisted I had planned the novel to contain said irony from the very beginning.
Ironically, I didn’t plan for my novel to be ironic. But I’m very glad it is.