Friday, September 2, 2016

Prose Blip – Irony

I love irony. It’s one of my favorite stylistic tools at my disposal, far greater than sarcasm in its bite and more satirical in nature than humor. It lends itself to a hundred situations, many times without you, a writer, even realizing it.

There’s nothing wrong with missing a sense of irony in something you read or write. Irony can often be so subtle you don’t even realize it’s there until someone else who was lucky enough to notice points it out.
Before I go on to giving tips about writing irony, I want to stop and ask a simple question:

What is Irony?

Like sarcasm and symbolism, irony can be hard to unravel, and easy to misunderstand. Irony (and variations of the word thereof) is a commonly misused word. A quick definition from the web:

a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.”

Now…. What does /that/ mean? Well, irony isn’t coincidence, at least it doesn’t look like it, it’s purposeful. If it’s not purposeful, it has the appearance thereof. In this way, it’s like humor; purposeful in some ways, or at least the seeming image of deliberate action.

And irony is contrary. Like sarcasm, what occurs (or is said) is opposite what is expected (or meant). Sometimes, irony is amusing. Like someone loudly proclaiming their dislike of a certain person, only to meet that same person repeatedly shortly thereafter and being forced to interact with them.
Other times, irony can be tragic. Shakespeare – perhaps more than any other author – employs both kinds of irony. You’ll find tragic and comedic irony in each and every one of his plays – even when the genre of play doesn’t necessarily fit the type of irony. In fact, it often seems like he uses comedic irony in a tragedy just for the ironic contrast of the irony (irony-ception, so to speak).

Writing Irony

One of the hardest things about irony is this: the second it feels forced, it stops being ironic. Irony has to feel purposeful without actually being purposeful. Like my example of the someone who dislikes the other person and they keep meeting, it’s coincidental. But it feels purposeful, like a divine hand has reached down, turned probability on its head, and made the situation uncomfortable and ironic.

Perhaps the easiest way to write irony is this: don’t try. The best ironic situations are written without you even knowing it. I’ve had beta readers tell me how much they enjoyed the irony in a certain scene, and I had no idea what they were talking about until I went and read the scene; sure enough, I found irony all over the place. When I first wrote that scene, I had no intention to write it that way. I didn’t mean to write that.

Quite often, however, “don’t try” isn’t good enough, is it? You came here expecting to learn how to write irony and I’ve been rather disappointing so far. Well… fine. Here:

-Consider why you need the irony. When you tell a story, what you talk about has to matter. It has to make sense in the style, it has to fit the characters, and it has to matter to the plot. This applies to attempting to write an ironic scene, too. What does the irony do for the story? The characters, the style, the reader? When Shakespeare wrote irony, it was the contrast and compare the characters, to reveal some truth about both the characters and the audience. His irony is never there for itself. It has purpose.

-The setup has to foreshadow faintly. An ironic situation requires setup. It requires you to think through what you want to happen, starting from the end. What’s ironic? What steps lead up to it? What starts it? You have to create situations and scenes that create a baseline – the thing that later reveals the irony (in our previous example, the person complaining about how much they dislike the other person). That baseline then starts a series of actions and scenes that spur us toward a reader-revelation: we see the irony, we laugh (or cry), we appreciate you as an author, and move on. But if all you do is set it up and reveal it, you’ve missed an important step: subtly show us that irony is coming. In our example, perhaps while the person is complaining, they insert a throw-away piece of dialogue like “I hope I never see that person”, or something like that.
It should be subtle enough that a lot of readers won’t notice it until the end of the irony. But then they’ll realize “OH, FORESHADOWING”, and they’ll politely clap for you.

-Never overstate. Your reader is intelligent. They have a brain; they have the ability to put together all the pieces of an ironic puzzle without you guiding their every step. You don’t have to hold their hand, you don’t have to explicitly say “hey, this is ironic and you need to appreciate that”. That’s lame, and your reader will be disappointed. In order for them to trust you with their emotions, you have to trust their intelligence with your story.
When you create irony, all you have to do is set up the situation, let it play out, and move on. Let your reader come to the realization that the scene is ironic. Let them take away the lesson or the laugh or the feels.

“But… what if they miss it?”

That’s okay. Some readers will miss it and some will catch it. Those who catch it will appreciate you and those who missed it… well, either they just weren’t paying attention or they wouldn’t appreciate it even if they saw it.

Oh, and as a quick note for all of you who read my interview with Bryce, his second book, Claervont's Cost, is now available! You can find it (along with the first book in the series) here.