Monday, February 27, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #123: There’s More Than One Type of Storytelling Irony

I’ve talked about irony a lot on this blog, including here and here, but it can all get a little unclear, because irony can have so many different meanings. 

The best definition overall definition I’ve come up with is this: Irony is any gap between expectation and reality. ...But, in practice, this isn’t quite precise enough.  Irony, in common usage, usually also has some additional element of mortification to it.  The person experiencing the irony is trying to preserve their false expectation, or is actively working to make it come to pass, and then reality  upsets their expectation or their efforts.  For instance: the rise of an Asian-American basketball star defies our expectations, but it doesn’t really upset them, so it’s not really ironic.  Most of us weren’t especially invested in keeping this from happening or in proving that it couldn’t happen.

In the end, to define irony, we have to the fall back on the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous definition of pornography: “I can’t define it exactly, but I know it when I see it.” 

But for our purposes today, let’s define irony broadly, so that we can figure out the many different types of irony a storyteller can use.  Some of you, such as last week’s commenter, may point out that some of these are technically just incongruities, but my point is that you can make any of these incongruities seem ironic in order to increase the impact of a story. 

Here’s what I see as Seven Types of Storytelling Irony:
  1. Ironic Presentation: The gap between audience’s expectation of what sort of story this is and the audience’s ultimate experience.
  2. Dramatic Irony: The gap between what the audience knows and what the character knows.
  3. Ironic Characterization: The gap between a character’s hidden private self and open public identity.
  4. Ironic Backstory: The gap between the character’s past direction in life and their current position.
  5. Ironic Character Presumptions: The gap between character’s presumptions and the reality of their situation. 
  6. Ironic Outcome: The gap between what the character intends to accomplish and the actual consequences of their efforts.
  7. Ironic Title: An inherently contradictory concept.  
Now let’s go a little more in depth:

Ironic Presentation has nothing to do with your characters.  This is a type of irony that is felt entirely by the audience.  When people called the ‘90s the “Ironic Decade”, this is the type of irony they were talking about: “Seinfeld” played on our expectations that sitcom characters had to grow and change, then shocked us by having them learn nothing.  Tons of bands played on our expectations that rockers had to be earnest bad-asses, and treated the whole thing as a goof.  “The Simpsons” would occasionally do it the other way, setting us up for an irreverent Bart episode and then walloping us with an earnest Lisa episode.
The “Seinfeld” example could also (simplistically) be called “sarcasm,” which is one type of ironic presentation, but there are others... “Camp”, for example, is a little trickier.  “Low Camp”, such as the ‘60s  “Batman” TV show works on two levels: straight up fun for kids, sly satire for adults.  “High Camp”, such as the films of Douglas Sirk, tell a story that is so earnest that it’s absurd, forcing you to feel genuine emotion and yet, at the same time, forcing you to laugh at yourself for feeling it. 

Many storytelling gurus only use the term ‘irony’ to refer to what I would call Dramatic Irony.  This can work two ways:
  • We know the reality of the situation but the character doesn’t, such as the boy who is unwittingly carrying a bomb in Hitchcock’s Sabotage
  • Or the character knows the reality but we don’t, as in heist thrillers such as Ocean’s Eleven
Some stories work better when our point of view is strictly married to the hero’s, with no dramatic irony, but not always.  Sometimes, we appreciate getting the sort of perspective that can only be achieved by seeing more than anyone in the story, and other times, we enjoy playing catch-up.  In Ocean’s Eleven, we don’t catch up until the very end, but in another heist thriller, Charlie Varrick, we catch up several times, which is also satisfying. 

Ironic Characterization is the gap between this and this. Characters should never be exactly what they say they are, or they’ll be flat.  As Robert McKee says, Rambo is exactly what he claims to be, so the character isn’t compelling.  Superheroes literally have a secret identity, but all heroes need to have a hidden part of themselves in order to for us to identify with them, because we all feel misunderstood and underestimated.  We all have both hidden strengths and hidden weakensses. As Bob Dylan said: “If my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”

Ironic Backstory is what I talked about here and here.  Not every character needs one, but it’s always powerful to reveal that a character started out headed in a very different direction from where they ended up. 

Ironic Character Presumptions are what I talked about here, here and here.  Every scene hits harder if we know that the characters naively think the opposite is going to happen. 

Ironic Outcomes are what I talked about here.  I liked The Help more than I thought I would, but I felt it deflated in the second half when Emma Stone’s actions had almost-exactly their intended effects.  If the story had been about the unintended effects of the book being published, it would have felt like literature, but as it was, it was just entertainment.  (Not that it needed to have an unhappy ending.  It could have ended happily but followed an ironic path to get there, such as in The Apartment)

Ironic Title: This last type is probably the least “ironic” of my ironies, but I’ll throw it in here anyway.  It always drives me crazy when I see a fantasy novel with a title like “The Knight’s Lance”, or a thriller with a title like “Deadly Assassin”.  These titles are telling you right off the bat that this book will be predictable.  A good story needs conflict, and why not start with the title, which is your first opportunity to set two incongruous elements against each other.
Let’s pick some from the list at right...   These titles are inherently intriguing: Blast of Silence, Dark Days, Killer’s Kiss, Kiss Me, Stupid, The Little Fugitive, Little Murders, My Favorite Wife, Safety Last, Unfaithfully Yours, and The White Sheik. 

The Court Jester, on the other hand, is a weak title, because where else would a jester be? Likewise, Shoot to Kill could be the title of any thriller ever made.  And Fritz Lang rightly complained when studio changed the name of his movie from the ironic The Human Beast to the unironic Human Desire.  Lang demanded to know, “What other kind of desire is there??” 

Good stories are packed with irony.  Hegel said that all meaning is created by the violent clash of a thesis vs. an antithesis.  The more ironies you pack into your story, the more meaning you’ll create.      

1 comment:

j.s. said...

Thanks for another classic and ridiculously useful post, Matt.

This weekend I saw an Austrian art film called MICHAEL that depended almost entirely on irony to keep the audience watching. The film is bleak procedural portrait of five months in the life of a seemingly average and boring insurance executive...who happens to be secretly keeping a kidnapped boy in his basement.

The protagonist is the most chilling and repulsive kind of psychopath, a man who views everyone in his life as either an obstacle or a plaything and hides his sickness in plain sight behind the mask of normalcy. He could be your next door neighbor.

So, short of Adolf Hitler, he's pretty much the most detestable and least relatable protagonist in the history of cinema.

But the filmmaker keeps the audience hooked by inverting the standard dynamics of a paranoid thriller -- where the hero alone knows the truth and the rest of the world is some combination of ignorant and in-on-it. In MICHAEL, only the audience knows that the hero is living a lie and so we can't wait for the truth to out him and put an end to his abhorrent deeds.

The irony of his evil secret imbues every single scene with an oppressive dread and a palpable suspense. A simple chat with coworkers or a side trip to the local store plays out like a nail-biting set piece.

Every moment matters...As long as he keeps getting away with it, as long as he keeps his secret, we keep watching. Because we need him to get caught so badly.