Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Big Idea, Part 11: All Good Stories Are Ironic

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.


Laura said...

I agree that most sequels suck, but I've always had a different theory about why (which I am now going to subject you to):

In the first story, there is conflict and there is resolution. Even if there is no clear happy ending, there is usually the sense that the characters are moving in a positive direction or that something has been accomplished. You end the story thinking "well, it's not perfect, but there is hope."

In order to make a sequel, though, the story tellers have to tell us: "Never mind! We thought they were going to be OK, but we were WRONG. " Then, to bring resolution around again, they have to come back around to that sense of hope that they established the first time.

Unfortunately, this time we don't believe them anymore. They fooled us once and we're not going to fall for it again. So there is a lingering disappointment in the story, even if as readers or watchers we can't quite figure out why. It's because we know now that despite the best intentions of the characters, the hope is broken.

Broadly drawn strokes, there, granted, but I find it holds true in most sequels I've encountered. And it's also based on the idea that the first story ended semi-well, which is not always the case and it doesn't make room for books intended to be in series... Still. Just a theory.

James Kennedy said...

@Laura: Roger that on sequels, especially your characterization of the deadly "Never mind! We thought they were going to be OK, but we were WRONG" direction.

Worst offender: Alien 3. "Hey, remember that girl Newt that Ripley spent her last bit of grit and ingenuity defending? She's dead! For no good reason. Hicks and Bishop too, whatever. On to the next adventure. Nothing matters!" Ugh.

Laura S. said...

This is awesome! It's timely too because my friends and I were recently talking about Alanis' Ironic song and saying how it's all so wrong. And then we proceeded to change the lyrics to make it right. Yes, that's what we do LoL! I'll have to share this post with them.

rams said...

Bless you. In "Roxanne" the Darryl Hannah character, locked out and naked, responds to being asked if she'd like a coat by saying "No, I'd rather stand here naked and freezing in a bush" then, when no coat is forthcoming protests "I was being ironic." Next time, instead of shouting "No, you were being sarcastic," I can holler "Matt agrees you were being sarcastic!"

And while it's still not as good as the original, "Jewel of the Nile," the sequel to "Romancing the Stone" at least confronted -- very meta -- the problems of post-happily-ever-after.

christinembird said...

I always thought that Aristotle owned the word irony. He used it in much the same way you do.

Matt Bird said...

Yes, James, Laura's comment also instantly made me think of Alien 3. So infuriating.

Another annoying example: Men in Black 2, where we find out that Tommy Lee Jones's happy ending from the first movie just made him miserable.

Paul Worthington said...

That's a great overall writing tip, Matt: Confounding character and audience expectations at every turn.

Anonymous said...

"Expecting a fun bachelor party and experiencing a blackout instead is ironic—the first time."

Hey, wait, isnt this just unfortunate? It's just like rain on your wedding day.

Unless, they chose the party venue specifially to avoid blackouts..

Matt Bird said...

You're right it does just sound like a bummer when I put it that way, but in this case, they did basically say "Let's go to Vegas so we'll have a bachelor party we'll never forget," in which case the situation is genuinely ironic.

David McDevitt said...

From this post, I believe I'm understanding better what irony is, but I still don't see how how most great stories contain irony. From my point of view they seem to truly contain 'I expect A, but B happens', which seems to be basic to lives being lived. Is there irony in Boyhood? Or is it just what makes a 'great novel' or a 'great film' often is different than a great story? Is Boyhood even a story? I suppose I am open to the idea of irony and other rule-type elements being integral to scene construction, but I'm resisting that they must be primary elements in the make-up of the larger thematic whole. If that makes sense.