Does Your Story Need More Tension? Add A Dash Of Dramatic Irony

Have you read a story where the character knew everything that was going on and merely went through a checklist to solve the problem?

I certainly hope not, because that would be boring as hell.

No matter the genre, we read stories to see how the main character emerges victoriously (or not). Does the detective solve the crime? Does the waitress capture the heart of the famous patron? Will the elf/goblin find the mystical gem and save the kingdom from certain annihilation?

If the character knows in the beginning how to conquer the challenges, there would be no story. In a typical narrative, the characters don’t know what to do, and neither do we, the readers. Tension arises through conflict and complications and the unknown. Include those, and you’re more likely to write a page-turner.

Credit: Jokeroo.com

Credit: Jokeroo.com

But if you want to turn your tension up even more, throw in some dramatic irony.

*insert collective groan as everyone remembers their high school literature classes*

Stay with me. Do this right, and your book will keep people up at night. Yay for creating drowsy drivers!

Dramatic irony happens when the audience knows something the characters don’t. Instead of exploring the dark cave with the MC and discovering the monster with him, we know the monster is there and brace ourselves for when the MC finds it. Dramatic irony causes readers/viewers to do this: Don’t do it!!

Or if we’re writing a romance, maybe this: Go for it! He likes you!!

Yes, everyone studied dramatic irony in high school. No one remembers, because high school literature classes have a magical gift of taking something interesting and turning it into a snore fest. Take, for example, the most famous example of dramatic irony: Romeo and Juliet.

We were all forced to translate Shakespearean and read this classic. It’s easy to tell who did their homework. Those who think it’s a basis for all love stories did not – unless they think all love stories should end in a suicide pact.

But it wasn’t really that, was it? Juliet took the “look I’m dead” potion, but Romeo thought she was really dead. We knew more than Romeo, and we watched in horror as he offed himself in despair.

Timmy

Credit: imgur

A still famous but more recent example occurred in the movie Jurassic Park. Remember the scene where Ellie is turning on all the electric fences at the same time Sam and the kids were climbing one of them? The camera jumped back and forth from Ellie working down the grid, turning on all the switches, to Timmy hanging onto the fence, refusing to drop. Ellie obviously didn’t know her simple act of turning on the power would kill Timmy. But we did, and we sat at the edge of our seats to see if Timmy would let go in time.

So how do you add dramatic irony to your story?

The key is point of view (POV). I didn’t read the Jurassic Park novel, but the movie is third person objective (as all movies are). We’re watching the characters do the thing from the outside, and the camera jumps from character to character.

It’s basically the same in writing, though I believe it works best with alternating, limited third POV (click here for more info on POV). It can work in omniscient, but it won’t be as powerful because we’re not all up in the characters’ heads. Typically, in limited third, the reader knows only what the character knows. But if we the readers know something the character doesn’t while we’re seeing the story from his eyes, that creates tension.

It doesn’t have to be edge-of-your-seat tension. I’m reading a story in my critique group that features a primary MC, and the story is told in limited third from her POV for much of the first quarter of the story. Then, the camera moves to her potential love interest. We watch him see her for the first time. We know who she is and her entire background, but he doesn’t. It’s a lot of fun to read his reaction to a character we already know.

I’m about to ask how you’ve used dramatic irony in your writing, but allow me to answer the question first. I used quite a bit of it in The Fourth Descendant. The first occurrence was when the characters sat together on the flight to Richmond, but none of them knew who the other ones were. Readers watched each character’s reaction to the other characters, and it wasn’t until they found their ride to the hotel that they realized their connection. Of course, the readers knew the connection from the beginning of the chapter. It was one of my favorite chapters to write.

Your turn: How have you used dramatic irony in your writing? 

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23 thoughts on “Does Your Story Need More Tension? Add A Dash Of Dramatic Irony

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  4. I came her via Dan’s blog (and because I just had to check out whom he spoke of in such glowing praise (in order to glean more so I can wiggle my way into one of those spots eventually.. wait, that’s creepy, isn’t it?)) and I just have to say, I’m glad I did. Great article explaining something that is so integral to good story telling (ok, that’s just my opinion). Thanks.

    Like

  5. Pingback: Don’t Be So Dramatic! Or DO. Dramatic Irony For Fun And Profit | Dan Alatorre - AUTHOR

  6. Thanks, Allison. I always need more tension in my stories. I think what I really want to do is write a novel where nothing ever goes wrong. I once wrote an outline where my plucky protags barely escaped every major danger on the California Trail, and they helped people who thanked them. I read it, laughed, and wrote a new outline.

    But dramatic irony is something I’m good at. In my Snow White retelling, the heroine is living in disguise in the woods in Gold Rush California. She meets Jack, (my Prince Charming), who is trying to find her to turn her in for the reward. They fall in love, and Janet has to struggle with whether or not to tell Jack her real identity.

    I’m good at killing people, too. It’s making their lives hell that I hate. I love my characters too much. I always feel like I need to apologize to them for the terrible things I do. It’s a good thing there’s no protective services for characters because I would so be locked up and my pen taken away. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post. It may turn out to be extremely helpful with one of my WIPs; the second Virtually Strangers book. It follows the story from the POV of the MC’s husband, giving readers his thoughts and feelings. There is a whole section of VS1 where they are apart, leaving readers with questions about how we get to the conclusion.

    I currently have this shelved while I sort out some concerns. Firstly I have been writing it in first person POV, a style that I am not entirely comfortable writing, and my initial outline has the story ending at the same place as VS1. So basically, there is little suspense or tension because readers know where the story is going. All they get out of it is how we ended up there from an alternative POV. Since shelving it, I’ve read Grey, or should I say, started reading it, and gave up because it was full of inconsistencies and I know where the story is going, as per my above concern.

    With your advice here, I think I should shorten the ‘mirrored’ section of VS2, revise the POV to 3rd person, cut down the waffle, and transform it into an introduction, then switching POV back to the MC, and building on the previous storyline rather than replicating it.

    Thank you, I think you have helped me move forward with my nemesis!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I may have to try this in my latest story. It has a lot of twists and turns, but I hadn’t thought about dramatic irony, and since it seems like a relatively simple device if you set the stage properly, I should give it a try.

    But where?

    When the reader knows something a character doesn’t know… There will be several places to do that. Like I have a bad guy (well, a lady) She wants to manipulate her way into power. While she cannot be the king, being the king’s confidant is a good place to be. She lucks into taking care of the prince and assumes the role of his de facto mother. When he takes over as king, there she’ll be! But as fate would have it, she is evil and a murderer, drugs people to make them her puppets including her “master” (boss) – and maybe the prince! I wonder if some dramatic irony could come into play with such an evil person doing bad things… but I am reluctant because the surprise element, the Big Reveal, like the audience shouldn’t know she’s the killer, but once they figure it out, it’s much more tension for the reader to know what she knows and the others don’t, right?

    Maybe it isn’t such a simple device.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you want her reveal to be a surprise to the characters and the reader, it’s not a great place for dramatic irony. And since it feels like a twist to me, I’d keep it that way bc it would be a good one. Like any device, dramatic irony isn’t always the best choice and can be overdone.

      Liked by 1 person

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