Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Many Ironies of Casablanca

As I update the old checklists, I thought it would also be good to take some time along the way to look deeper into irony. As we did with Blazing Saddles, let’s run through fourteen ironies you can find in Casablanca:

Your story will be more meaningful if you present a fundamentally ironic concept (which will sometimes be encapsulated by an ironic title).
  • The least patriotic American has to save the Allied cause. (The title is not ironic.)
There are three big ways to have ironic characterization: Your heroes will be more compelling if they have an ironic backstory…
  • Rick the cynic used to be an idealist
…an ironic contrast between their exterior and interior…
  • Rick the cynic is filled with tender heartache
…and a great flaw that’s the ironic flip side of a great strength.
  • He’s too cold-blooded, but the flip side is that he’s very cool.
Structure centers around another great irony: Though your heroes might initially perceive this challenge as an unwelcome crisis, it will often prove to be a crisis that ironically provides just the opportunity your heroes need, directly or indirectly, to address their longstanding social problems and/or internal flaws.
  • Rick finds heroic fulfillment by being placed in a deadly situation and having his heart ripped up again.
Each scene will be more meaningful if the hero encounters a turn of events that upsets some pre-established ironic presumptions about what would happen.
  • Rick has made it clear he doesn’t care if Victor makes it out of Casablanca.
Likewise, the conclusion of each scene will be more meaningful if the character’s actions result in an ironic scene outcome, in which the events of the scene ironically flip the original intention, even if things turn out well for the hero.
  • When Rick discovers that Victor is with Ilsa, he suddenly has to care.
There are several types of ironic dialogue: On the one hand, there’s intentionally ironic dialogue, such as sarcasm.
  • Rick is insulted, but says, “I stay up late at night crying about it.”
On the other hand, there’s unintentionally ironic dialogue, such as when there’s an ironic contrast between word and deed…
  •  Strasser thinks he’s very much in control, but we can see otherwise.
…or an ironic contrast between what the character says and what the audience knows.
  • Ilsa says she’ll meet Rick at the train station, but we know that she won’t have the chance.
There are the pros and (potentially big) cons of having an ironic tone, which is the one type of irony that most stories shouldn’t have, although it can be a useful tool for certain very specific types of stories.
  • It’s tempting to say this movie has an ironic tone, because it’s full of cool, jaded sarcasm, but that’s not the way I use the term. This movie does not take a sarcastic attitude towards storytelling itself (as Blazing Saddles does, for instance) so I would say that it doesn’t have an ironic tone.
Finally, there are the thematic ironies that every story should have: The story’s ironic thematic dilemma, in which the story’s overall dilemma comes down to a choice of good vs. good (or bad vs. bad)…
  • Romantic love vs. love of country
…as well as several smaller ironic dilemmas along the way, in which your characters must consistently choose between goods, or between evils throughout your story.
  • It’s important to fight for freedom, but do you have any right to endanger someone’s life by asking them to come to a resistance meeting?
This will culminate in an ironic final outcome, separate from the ironic concept and the thematic dilemma.
  • Rick finds fulfillment by sending away the woman he loves.

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