My generation of Americans tend to think that we own the word “irony”, but in fact, most of us don’t really understand what it means. The first problem is that we confuse irony with sarcasm. Sarcasm is merely one type of ironic phrasing (using insincere language to convey the opposite meaning). But it would be wrong to assume that any story that acknowledges irony has to be sarcastic in tone. In fact, all stories, from the most sarcastic and nasty to the most uplifting and heartfelt, should be fundamentally ironic.
Irony refers to any difference between expectation and outcome. This difference can be comedic (expected a kiss, got a pie in the face or vice versa) or it can be dramatic (sought justice, found injustice, or vice versa). Either way, the greater the gulf between expectation and outcome, the more meaning the story will have. Likewise, the smaller the gap, the more meaningless it will be.
This brings us to my generation’s other misunderstanding about irony, which was famously exacerbated by Alanis Morrisette’s terrible song “Ironic.” Just because a situation is a bummer, doesn’t mean that it’s ironic. Rain on your wedding day is not ironic, unless you insisted on getting married in the desert so as to avoid the rain. A traffic jam when you’re already late isn’t ironic unless you left late to beat the traffic. (UPDATE: A few years after I wrote this, Rachael Hurwitz fixed the song accordingly!)
One note I give all the time is “This is a bummer, but it’s not tragic.” A story about a perennial-loser losing again is just a bummer. A story about a winner winning again is just dull. Stories about losers winning, or winners losing, are ironic. The same goes for stories about an always-bad person doing wrong, or an always-good person doing right—these stories lack irony.
This is why you need to take time before every scene to establish that the character expects something other than what’s going to happen. If the audience shares the character’s expectation, then they will feel the impact of the reversal of fortune so much more.
This is why heroes need tragic flaws. The heroes of thrillers and horror movies should be at least partially culpable for what happens to them, if only in a “curiosity killed the cat” kind of way. Likewise, comedic predicaments should befall the people who have tried the hardest to make sure nothing like this ever happens to them.I’ve been reading a lot of Will Eisner’s brilliant comics about “The Spirit” recently. The Sprit is a good guy doing good—which is why the stories are never actually about him. Most of the stories are either about a villain he encounters who unexpectedly does good, or a nice person who unexpectedly does bad. That’s a story.
This is why most sequels suck. In action/adventure/thriller/horror, the first movie is about a seemingly-weak person who turns out to be strongest choice for this job. That’s ironic. The second is about a strong person remaining strong. That’s dull. In comedies, the first movie is about someone who expects sanity encountering insanity. The second is about that insanity continuing, which should be no surprise. Expecting a fun bachelor party and experiencing a blackout instead is ironic—the first time. The second time, it’s just pitiful.