Irony is when the intentional or implied meaning is the exact opposite of the actual or literal meaning. Irony is about setting up and defeating expectations.
Master story teller James Cameron uses often uses irony in his scripts to great effect, so lets look some examples from his movies.
- Aliens – Ripley returns to planet LV-426 under the protection of the colonial marines, however the marines end up cocooned or killed and she has to save everyone herself.
Expectation – the marines would protect her.
Result – she has to save everyone.
- The Terminator – Skynet sends back in time a Terminator to kill the mother of the leader of the human resistance movement so that he will never be born. However, because of this the humans also send back a soldier who ends up impregnating Sarah Connor, who gives birth to future leader.
Expectation – stop John Connor from being born.
Result – create John connor
- Avatar – Jack Sully is sent in by the marines to spy on the Na’vi however he falls in love with one of them and leads the fight against them.
Expectation – destroy the Na’vi
Result – turns against the humans
Irony is a powerful tool in story telling
Irony is also at the root of all stories with a premise based around “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it…and not like it”
So, irony is useful, not essential, but a powerful tool in story telling. During the creative process you can use irony in a few ways;
Firstly, if you know your ending, use irony to create your beginning, ask what would be the situation that set up or had the intentions to create the exact opposite of your ending.
Secondly, if you know your set up but have no idea how to finish your story , explore notions of what is the exact opposite of the intentions you’ve set up.
It’s important, during this stage not to dismiss ideas too quickly as outrageous or impossible to pull off because part of the skill of the writer is to be able to make something work.
[quote type=”center”]Ride the horse until it drops, then you pick it up and drag it.[/quote]
Lets look at my imaginary film Dwarf teacher High, the story of a dwarf who becomes the teacher at a high school.
A possible ending for this story is the dwarf gains the respect of the students and saves the day. What is the flip of this situation?
- The villains of the story want to close the school down, so they employ a dwarf who they believe will fail because he is a dwarf.
- He takes a up a teaching position in an exclusive school, full of over privileged rich kids who take great delight in ridiculing him at every opportunity.
- He starts up at a school full of poor students who can’t be bothered learning (To Sir with Love)
- He’s been at the same school all his life and hates his job and his students hate him.
I like to explore at least ten different ideas or until I have an ‘Ah ha’ moment. If the story you’re working on at the moment feels predictable it could be because you’ve flagged your ironic twist too early or made it too obvious.
If you’re making a romantic comedy and the guy is love with the classically beautiful, yet bitchy, queen of the school but his best friend is the nerdy girl, who is also gorgeous, as soon as she takes off her overalls, glasses and lets her hair down.
[quote]We all know what’s going to happen from page one. You need to hide this ironic twist using misdirection.[/quote]
Once you’ve identified the ironic twist in your story it gives you heaps of scenes, characters and obstacles to create drama.
If you took the above example number one and played it out, you’re going to need a scene to set up why the villains wont to close the school, why they think the dwarf is the right man to be the wrong man, the kids in the school are established as characters who are going to treat the dwarf badly but still be characters with enough depth so as to respond to what’s going on and redeem themselves.
The above technique looked at putting irony in at a grand story level but it can also be used at a situation level.
A kid on a skateboard falls off and smashes his head open isn’t that funny or interesting however if you add some irony to the moment such as he fell off his skateboard as he was doing a trick on a safety barrier.
If the school’s guidance councilor turns out to be a drug dealer getting girls into prostitution to pay for their habit. If a fire extinguisher malfunctions, explodes and causes the school to burn down. If what ever someone is doing, or the purpose of something turns out to do the exact opposite of that intention then you’ve struck ironic gold.
So then, to put irony into a scene you’ve already got which is serving your plot and is in the context of your character but is otherwise boring. Take a scene from Dwarf teacher High.
The Dwarf tells his students to keep the noise down because the Principal is trying to impress someone. When he returns the kids are running amok making a heap of noise and the Dwarf is in trouble for leaving his students unsupervised.
This scene works fine but it’s not that entertaining, to add irony to this scene would be to keep the exact same setup, however when the Dwarf returns and the kids are playing up he jumps up on a table and has to yell over them to be quiet and as a result the Principal opens the door and hears him yelling and the Dwarf is in trouble.
- Expectation – telling the kids to keep the noise down so they don’t get into trouble.
- Result – he has to yell at the kids and he gets in trouble for yelling.
Check out the first two minutes twenty five seconds of this clip to see how Joss Whedon does it.