It’s a common question writers ask. What is dramatic irony and what does it mean? Is it useful for authors?
Many writers mistake dramatic irony with creating some sort of drama with an ironic twist, but it’s nothing really much to do with actual drama, but rather the effect it creates. When we refer to dramatic irony, it means the reader knows something that the characters don’t.
Why include this in our writing? It’s a way for the writer to involve the reader – they know what’s about to happen, especially if it embroils the main character, but they can’t do anything about it except read on. It’s like scuba diving – you can see the dark menace lurking behind your diving buddy, but he’s completely unaware of the imminent danger.
This literary device helps the reader to experience what’s happening on a much deeper level than just reading about Character A going about his business with Characters B and C. By allowing the reader in on what will happen – rather like sharing a secret – they become aware of danger, tension, fears and emotions, because they can guess what might happen to the character who is completely unaware.
There might be a killer lurking in the shadows, creeping around outside a house, and the writer can show this to the reader, but inside the house, the victim is unaware of such danger.
Why do we use dramatic irony?
We use it to create drama and atmosphere at key stages within the novel. If the reader is privy to something that the character is not, it raises the tension and suspense for the reader. It also gives the narrative a different dimension because it allows the reader to become part of that moment, more involved, and if revolves around a main character, then emotions are heightened and the immediacy between character and reader becomes stronger. This happens because we don’t want anything bad to happen to the hero, and the threat of impending tragedy will do just that.
Every author has used dramatic irony to a greater of lesser degree, everyone from Shakespeare and virtually all his plays to Stephen King. And they use it because it’s a great way to connect with the reader on a very different level.
When is it best to use it?
When the drama of an important scene demands it. For instance, the hero could be searching for something or someone, but he’s not aware of the gang lying in wait for him, however the reader is aware. You may have a scene where the hero is about enter a situation that could end terribly – in a courtroom for instance - but he won’t know that. The reader will. This is how dramatic irony works, and more often than not, authors actually create this without thinking about it, rather like an in-built ability. That’s because of the way we write if working with 3rd person multiple POV. It allows the viewpoint of many characters, and therefore, it allows the reader to see things that other characters won’t.
While dramatic irony works well for 3rd person POV, it will not work for first person, since the viewpoint cannot change.
If you want to create extra atmosphere, tension and emotion, make sure you employ dramatic irony. The narrative will be much better for it.
Next week: How can you make your writing stand out?