Thursday, October 25, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #156: Successes and Failures Should Be Ironic

I’ve talked before about many different types of storytelling irony, and how you should employ as many as possible.  Irony is the heart of meaning, and it should suffuse every aspect of your story. 

This means that you have to keep upsetting your heroes’ expectations, but it doesn’t mean that your heroes have to keep failing.  In this post about The Apartment, I showed how a chain of seemingly negative ironic reversals turned out well for the hero, and how a chain of seeming positive plot turns turned out poorly. 

Audience love to see characters succeed or fail in ironic ways.  That’s what keeps stories interesting.  If a girl says to the glum boy she likes, “I’m going to take you to the carnival and cheer you up”, then the audience is not going to want to see either a straightforward success (he loves the roller coaster and thanks her for a fun time) or a straightforward failure (he hates the rides and says thanks for nothing.)

We’d rather see an ironic failure (He loves the rides, and starts to cheer up, but from the Ferris wheel he sees his ex kissing a new guy and becomes more depressed than ever) or an ironic success (He hates the rides, and tries to sneak away, but as he does so he sees a carny kicking a mangy dog out of the camp, so he rescues the grateful dog, who proceeds to make him totally happy.)

Romeo doesn’t go to that party because he wants to meet someone new.  He goes to win Rosalyn’s affections.  He finds the love affair he’s looking for, but he does so ironically, by doing the one thing he didn’t want to do, seeing past his former infatuation toward someone new. 

This is another thing to beware of when it comes time to turn your beatsheet into an actual screenplay.  The broad strokes of the scene may be, “He goes to the party, meets Juliet and falls in love”, but when you’re painting in the details, you’ll have to make it more interesting than that.  Try to have every plot point, positive or negative, be an ironic reversal of what the audience (and the character) thought was going to happen.  Your audience will love you for it.


j.s. said...

Any given episode of MAD MEN or BREAKING BAD can inspire you to optimize the irony of your beats. And I know I've mentioned this before, but THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is probably the film that best exemplifies this idea. I think just about every expectation that's set up in the film is reversed ironically. There's not a single straightforward outcome.

Paul Worthington said...

"Try to have every plot point, positive or negative, be an ironic reversal of what the audience (and the character) thought was going to happen."

Great advice. Thanks.