Like most people I have a rudimentary understanding of irony. I know there’s a difference between coincidence and irony, but I’ve never spent a lot of time plumbing the depths of the distinction. If you and I run into each other at a store we’re both visiting for the first time, I know that’s a coincidence. And if we I run into each other at a fast-food joint after we just spent several hours talking about our healthy lifestyles, that’s ironic.
In life, then, irony requires some kind of context. It’s not enough that something happens. In order to be ironic, an event needs to have meaning that stands apart from the event. We recognize irony in our lives when our point of view allows us to see both aspects at once: the coincidence (or ‘happening’) and the context (ironic meaning).
As Hills notes, creating irony in fiction involves replicating irony in real life:
The fiction writer, playing God with his characters and their stories, can create tricks of plotting, ironic “turns of event,” that resemble the “tricks of Fate” that we speak of as being ironic in everyday life.
As Hills also notes, irony is an aspect of the author’s tone. It’s the author’s feeling about the events of a story, and the orchestration of those events, that creates an ironic effect. Again, irony in real life is more than coincidence, which means irony in fiction is a deliberate act on the part of an author. (And readers know that.)
We’ve all been the recipient of self-inflicted irony. If you proudly tout your healthy lifestyle, then get caught with a mouthful of McMeat dripping off your chin, you’re probably going to feel some embarrassment. This potential for added meaning (all you were doing was eating a hamburger) and the tone of the impact (comic or tragic) is not simply great fodder for fiction, it offers opportunities to introduce and exploit suspense in all its guises. Again: audiences are fairly sophisticated, and if you prepare for irony in your stories they’ll probably see it coming and enjoy it all the more.
A mocking attitude is what’s common to all forms of irony, whether it be the “tragic” or “dramatic” irony of fate or the facetious ironic tone of satire.
If you’re thinking about writing an ironic character or story I recommend that you spend a little time with this chapter. Hills lays out all the permutations nicely, and explains how they work both as a matter of craft and in relation to the audience’s own perspective.
Irony isn’t complicated, really, but as an aspect of tone it requires careful attention to detail. Convincing your readers that something is ironic means controlling point of view for that effect — both in terms of the characters involved and your own authorial presence. Like everything else in storytelling, the last thing you want to end up doing is confusing your audience, and the best way to prevent that is to know your craft.
Next up: Setting.
— Mark Barrett