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I’m starting to think that in terms of screenwriting, writing about irony is like writing about theme. Muddy waters. In fact, many screenwriting books don’t even mention irony. But like theme, conflict, concept, and emotions I’m starting to see irony as a top shelf tool for your writing took kit.

In fact, some of my favorite films, characters, and scenes are tied to theme, conflict, concept, emotions and irony.

Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie is an out of work actor who dresses like a woman to get a role.

Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman is a faded rodeo star who now wears a western outfit with lights to help sell cereal to kids.

Ellen Page in Juno wants to find a cool stable couple to adopt her baby, but instead finds a yuppie couple heading for divorce (and the husband hits on her!)

William Holden in Sunset Blvd. is a struggling screenwriter who starts a relationship with a faded movie star thinking it will ease his financial hardships and ends up dead.

Jack Lemmon in The Apartment basically has an apartment that everyone gets to sleep in—except him.

Jannie Foxx has to “assist” Tom Cruise killing people in Collateral in order to survive.

Tom Hanks is an efficient manager of time and people in Cast Away yet gets stranded on a deserted island with no time or people to manage.

Doesn’t matter if it’s a quirky indie film, a Hollywood blockbuster, a foreign favorite, or a classic silent film—the best movies often have strong concepts, themes, conflict, emotions…and irony. (And most of my examples fall under the definition of irony found on Merrian-Webster Dictionary 3A ; “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal expected result.”)

One book that doesn’t shy away from writing about dramatic irony is Writing Drama by Yves Lavandier. I received this book a couple of years ago from Paris (complete with cool France stamps) and regret that I haven’t written about it before. It’s a solid book for screenwriters and playwrights that you should get.

Lavandier gives some examples of irony in his book based on the definition 3b at Merrian-Websters;  “incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play —called also dramatic irony, tragic irony. 

So let’s see how Lavandier reveals how the dramatic giants of Ibsen and Shakespeare handled dramatic irony.

A Doll’s House: We know that Nora has borrowed money after forging her father’s signature, her husband Helmer doesn’t know this. We know too that he regards her as a doll, but she is unaware of this.

King Lear: We know that Corelia is Lear’s most loyal daughter, but he can’t see this.

Hamlet: We know that Hamlet knows the truth about the murder of his father; Claudius and Gertrude (at least to start with) do not. We know that Hamlet is not mad; many of the characters, including Ophelia, do not.

And for good measure let’s toss in some of Lavandier’s dramatic irony examples from Hitchcock, Pixar and Groundhog Day.

Rope: We know that a corpse is hidden in the chest; the guests of the two murderers (John Doall, Farley Granger), the victims parents and friends, do not.

Toy Story: We know that the toys come alive when no humans are present, the humans do not. We know that Buzz is not a real space ranger but just a toy, Buzz does not.

Groundhog Day: We know that Phil Connors’ (Bill Murray) day is eternally recommencing, but most of the other characters are unaware of this. 

Lavandier actually spends about 50 pages on dramatic irony and I’ll pull some quotes in the next couple of days on why he thinks dramatic irony works and has been such a staple of drama going back to the Greek playwrights.

Related Posts:
Dramatic Irony (Tip #79)
Dramatic Irony (Paul Lucey)

Scott W. Smith

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“Dramatic irony is a powerful convention that occurs when the hero or villain is thwarted or rewarded in a painful or unexpected manner. In All My Sons [written by Chester Erskine from a play by by Arthur Miller], the father is so desperate to earn money for his family that he cheats on the equipment that his firm supplies to the Air Force. Later, his son dies while flying in a defective airplanes. The dramatic irony is that the father sinned to help his family, only to see his sins return and destroy his family.

War stories respond well to dramatic irony, as in All Quiet on the Western Front, which ends when the hero (Lew Ayres) reaches for a butterfly and is killed by a sniper. The war is about to end, the innocent hero makes a peaceful gesture, and the anonymous bullet ends his life, creating an exquisite moment of dramatic irony.”
Paul Lucey
Story Sense
Page 208

Related Post:
Irony in Movies (Tip #79)

Scott W. Smith

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“You’ll have a huge advantage if your concept contains irony.”
Carson Reeves
Scriptshadow

“The number one thing a good logline must have , the single most important element is: irony….Irony gets my attention. It’s what we who struggle with loglines like to call the hook, because that’s what it does. It hooks your interest.”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

“We teach best what we most need to learn.
And I sure hope this won’t come back to bite me on the ass.
Dramatic irony. What is it?
I got no clue — says the professional screenwriter.”
Terry Rossio
Wordplayer/Dramatic Irony

It’s hard to believe that I’ve written this blog on screenwriting for five and a half years and have never done a post specifically on irony. Probably out of fear of adding confusion to the subject of technically what is and isn’t irony. I think part of the confusion is words that have been used for centuries often have not only different meanings depending on the era, but sometimes even have contrary meanings.

For instances I’m told the word scan used to mean to examine throughly but when we say today that we “scanned the book” we tend to mean that we flipped through it quickly. So with that said I will dive into the territory of irony with the help of others in hopes that it will help you and your writing.

The word that I associate irony with the most is contrary—meaning the opposite. The example that jumps to my mind is in four-time Oscar-winner Rain Man when Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise)  has this exchange with his father’s lawyer, John Mooney, about being left out of the money portion of his father’s will:

Charlie: Disappointed? Why should I be disappointed? I got rose bushes didn’t I? I got a used car, didn’t I? This other guy, what’d you call him?

John Mooney: The beneficiary.

Charlie: Yeah him, he got $3,000,000 but he didn’t get the rose bushes. I got the rose bushes. I definitely got the rose bushes. Those are rose bushes!

That’s irony. Verbal irony. Charlie Babbitt is extremely disappointed that he got the rose bushes and a used car instead of $3 million. Now Babbitt is being sarcastic at the same time. But not all sarcasm is ironic, and not all irony is sarcastic.

“Irony is ‘a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.’ For instance, if a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.”
George Carlin
Brain Droppings

We don’t have George Carlin around anymore to split that difference between irony and coincidence, but it seems to be a perfect example of dramatic irony is in Back to the Future when the teenager Marty (Michael J. Fox) goes back to 1955 and tries to make sure his future mom and dad (then teenagers themselves) fall in love with each other and instead Marty’s mom starts to have a crush on him. That’s a little confusing if you’ve never seen the film—and you really should—but it’s a humorous result of  “the reverse of what was to be expected.” A good example of situational irony.  And at the same time that situation is full of conflict where the stakes are very high. (If Marty’s parents don’t fall in love and eventually get married and have kids, then Marty won’t exist.)

“Dialogue is a playground for dramatic irony… In PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, the British Commodore, Norrington, thinks that Jack Sparrow is the worst pirate he’s ever seen. Later, when Jack manages to steal Norrington’s fastest ship, his First Mate comments, ‘That’s got to be the best pirate I’ve ever seen.’ Not only is the First Mate complimenting Jack, but he’s using phrasing that nearly mimics Norrington’s insult… a fact not lost on Norrington, or the audience.
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Co-writer of Pirate of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Wordplayer/Dramatic Irony

“For a clown fish, he’s not that funny. ”
Bruce the shark in Finding Nemo

Charlie Chaplin understood irony when he wrote The Great Dictator and told the solution of having 3,000 workers planning to strike: “Have them all shot. I don’t want any of my workers dissatisfied.” Alfred Hitchcock understood the use of irony in Vertigo, Rear Window,  and Rope. But one of his most memorable uses of irony was from his Tv program Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In Lamb to the Slaughter (written by Roald Dahl) a police detective investigating a murder (and looking for the murder weapon) eats a lamb dinner prepared by the woman who used the lamb when it was frozen to kill her cheating husband.

“Irony is a fancy word for saying ‘the opposite of which is perceived.’ A priest who murders. A pianist who’s deaf. A clown who’s depressed. Audiences LOVE irony. Therefore you should try and incorporate it into your concept, characters and plot as much as possible! The most powerful king in the world is tasked with giving the most important speech in history…yet he can’t speak (The King’s Speech). Irony is your best friend. Use it whenever you can!”
Carson Reeves
Script Shadow Secrets

Now perhaps I’m confusing irony and coincidence (or perhaps just contrasting situations), but some other films that come to mind that use irony in the way that Blake Synder used the word irony—to mean “unexpected”:
Seabiscuit (A lazy horse becomes a champion)
Rocky
(A club boxer who loses his locker at the gym gets a shot at the title)
Jaws
(A sheriff from the city who is afraid of water must go into the ocean to battle a killer shark)
Erin Brockovich (An unemployed and uneducated woman jump-starts a lawsuit against a corporate giant)
Liar, Liar (A lawyer prone to lying must tell the truth for 24 hours)
Rudy (A small guy who never played high school football wants to play football at Notre Dame)
Miss Congeniality (A tomboy FBI agent must join a beauty pageant to catch the bad guys)
City Slicker (A guy from New York City joins a cattle drive in the west to find himself)
48 Hours (A cop needs the help of a criminal to catch the bad guys)
Babette’s Feast (
A servant of sorts wins the lottery and spends her winnings on a grand feast for a religious group dedicated to a austere lifestyle)
Pieces of April (
A young woman in an attempt to make ammends with her family decides to cook dinner only to have her stove not working on Thanksgiving day)

“At the beginning of [The Incredibles], Mr. Incredible gets sued for saving a person attempting suicide. He later goes through a mid-life crisis, when superheroes are often considered ageless. Also, superheroes are done in by their iconic capes (and after Edna’s escapade in cape-related deaths, Syndrome is killed after his cape is caught in an airplane turbine).”
Irony: The Secret to Pixar Plotting

It would seem that Pixar long ago figured out how to use irony. In fact, the ending of Toy Story 3 was one great unexpected ending.  There are few things as powerful (and rare) as a satisfying ironic ending.

P.S. The title Screenwriting from Iowa was always meant to be ironic. As in that’s the last place you’d expect to find people writing screenplays. And it’s also meant as a metaphor to connect with screenwriters from remote areas around the world. Ironically (am I using that word correctly?) I’ve been surprised that working screenwriters in Hollywood read these posts from time to time.

Related Posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Screenwriting & Contrasts (Tip #18)
The Perfect Logline
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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Since yesterday’s post was on the Lincoln Highway I was looking for a fresh angle for re-post Saturday and I hit the jackpot. I realized that the Lincoln Highway passed through Chicago and Route 66 originated in Chicago so there was a good chance that the two classic American roads intersected.

So I just Googled it and they did intersect at one time in the Chicago suburb of Plainfield. (I think over the years some of the roadways have been renamed from that era, but I believe a historical marker in Plainfield marks where the two roads once came together.)

One more reason why the Chicago area is special. This gives me an opportunity to re-post Screenwriting da Chicago Way that I first ran back in 2008:

“I adore Chicago. It is the pulse of America.”
Sarah Bernhardt

“You’re Abe Froman… the sausage king of Chicago?”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

“I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail.
H. L. Mencken

“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone!”
The Untouchables

Last week a 5.4 earthquake hit Illinois and was felt in Indiana and as far away as Iowa. Just one more way the Midwest is following those California trends. You know, I’m doing my part to export screenwriting from the Midwest and other unlikely places where people are writing so it makes sense to make another road trip and head over the Iowa state line to the east and travel into Illinois.

The epicenter of last week’s earthquake was West Salem, but from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective the epicenter for the Midwest is Chicago. It’s the third largest city in the United States and sits with a commanding view of Lake Michigan and can rightly be called The Third Coast.

Everyone should have the opportunity once in their life to have their own version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the windy city. Here’s my perfect Chicago day: The Art Institute in the morning, a walk and lunch at the Navy Pier, see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field, ride an architectural boat tour, a sunset dinner at the Signature Room high atop the John Hancock Center , a play at one of the zillions of theater options, a carriage ride around the Chicago Water Tower downtown and a nice room at The Drake Hotel on the Magnificent Mile with a room overlooking the Gold Coast (where even dogs are given special treatment).

And if you have the weekend you can fit in a concert at Millennium Park and a list that just gets longer and longer. Chicago is a great city. And it alone has produced a wealth of creative talent that shines as bright as the city. (Maybe that’s why Dan Quayle once said, “It is wonderful to be in the great state of Chicago…”)  Here’s a list of writers from Illinois though I’m sure to leave out many people. (Feel free to email me additional writers with connections there.)

Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding)
Sam Shepard (True West)
David Mamet (The Verdict)
Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)
Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels)
Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan)
Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea)
John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix)
Harold Ramis  (Groundhog Day)
Bill Murray (The Razor’s Edge)
Greg Glienna (Meet the Parents)
Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness)
Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song)
John Logan (Gladiator)
Jon Favreau (Swingers)
Tina Fey (Mean Girls)
Michael Mann (The Insider)
Pete Jones (Hall Pass)
Phil Vischer (VeggieTales movies)
Roger Rueff (The Big Kahuna)
Vince Vaughn (The Internship)
Robert Zemeckis  (Back to the Future)
Edward Zwick  (The Last Samurai)
Diablo Cody (Juno)
John Logan (Hugo)
Garry Marshall (The Odd Couple-TV)
Walt Disney (Did you know Walt won more Oscars than anyone?—22)

From the odd connections category, Evangelist Billy Graham (who used to have a film studio in Burbank) and horror specialist Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) both graduated from Wheaton College about 30 miles from downtown Chicago. Blues Brother, and writer/actor John Belushi graduated from Wheaton High School.

Film critic and produced screenwriter Roger Ebert (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and screenwriter/Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman) both graduated of the University of Illinois system.

Filmmaker and book publisher Michael Wiese is originally from Illinois. I have at least a dozen production books that Michael Wiese Productions has produced. If you’re not familiar with their books three to check out are Save the Cat (Blake Snyder) , Shot by Shot (Steven D. Katz) and The Hero’s Journey (Christopher Vogler).

A special mention must be made to two pillars of writing from Chicago: Pulitzer Prize winner Saul Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift) and Studs Terkel (Hard Times).

The list of well-known actors with Chicago ties is too long to list but here are a few;  Harrison Ford, Vince Vaugh, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, John and Joan Cusack, Virgina Madsen, Kim Novak, Bill Murray, Terrance Howard, Red Foxx, Bonnie Hunt, Patricia Arquette, Karl Malden and Gary Sinise.

Chicago is the kind of place where probably every night of the week you could attend a film related function between the various school, colleges and professional groups. There are plenty of ways to avoid writing if you live in the Chicago area.

But, of course, your goal is probably to write while living outside L.A., get sold and get produced. (I’ve said before you could live in West Africa or West Covina and feel like you’re far from the Hollywood system.)

Let me tell you about a fellow I just found out (remember this was back in 2008) about via the DVXuser.com forum. Kyle is a radiologists living in the suburbs of Chicago. He owns a DV camera package and writes screenplays. In other words he was like every other writer with a dream…until a couple weeks ago.

He wrote a screenplay called The Lemon Tree and had a lawyer he met in Chicago rep him in L.A. and earlier this month sold the script for $300,000 against $600,000. He has no plans to quit his job and move to L.A. The next step is seeing if the film gets made and then if it finds an audience. But as far as a writer outside the system Kyle has hit the jackpot, and proves it can be done.

(You can read the entire thread and download a well-informed screenwriting document Kyle has put together at DVXuser.com. Look under filmmaking–screenplay/writing/Sold it! The DVXuser forum is a wealth of info for the independent filmmaker and a supportive community. Here’s a little poseur shot of me with my DVX camera back in ’06 when I was shooting a documentary in Chicago.)

If you want further proof that screenplays can be sold by screenwriters outside L.A. here is a quote that screenwriter and author of Save the Cat! Blake Snyder sent me when I asked him about writers living outside L.A. selling their work:

“I have said often that geography is no longer an impediment to a career in screenwriting. I know of one woman who decided to be a screenwriter in Chicago, wrote 5 scripts, sold 2 and got an agent and manager, all while never leaving the confines of her condo.  It starts with a great concept! You have a great idea and a great poster, if you execute that well, you will get phone calls — and deals.  The key is: the great script!  And that starts with the step by step process I outline in Cat!  Go get ‘em!”

On the footsteps of The Dark Knight (Batman) being filmed last summer in Illinois, the current big movie being shot there is Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant starting Matt Damon with a funky mustache. The story takes place in Decatur and is based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book about a scandal at Archer Daniels Midland’s Company (ADM) that involved the FBI. Ultimately ADM was fined $100 million for a conspiracy involving replacing sugar with high fructose corn syrup. Shades of Soderbergh’s other film about corporate greed, Erin Brockovich?

Other helpful sites about the filmmaking scene in Illinois here are a few recommended sites:

Reel Chicago
Midwest FIlm
Chicago Screenwriters
Illinois Film Biz

So come on, if Abraham Lincoln can go from a one room log cabin to become the 16th President of the United States (via Illinois) certainly that should give you some motivation to overcome a few obstacles in your life to get your scripts written and sold. Or maybe to buy a camera and make your own films. Even if you live in Springfield or Kankakee.

Speaking of Kankakee, if Screenwriting from Iowa had a theme song it might be Chicago native Stevie Goodman’s City of New Orleans because it captures a flavor of a life beyond Hollywood:

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin’ towns that have no names
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Chorus
Good morning, America, how are you
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

And if I can pick a B-side song I’ll go with, Jim Croce’s tribute to the South Side of ‘ole Chicago — Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.

2013 Update:  I talked to Kyle (the radiologists who sold his script The Lemon Tree) a few years after I originally wrote this post and while he got paid for optioning his script it turned into a bad experience and the film never got produced. He said the next time he would aim to self produce his own script. I’ll have to track him down and see if he ever pulled that off.

Related Posts:
Second City at 50
Postcard #20 (The Heart of Chicago)
Screenwriter Pete Jones

Photographs & Text Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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I’ve been walking that Lincoln Highway
I thought you knowed
Hard Traveling by Woody Guthrie

A little sun-kissed blonde is comin’ my way
Just beyond the Lincoln Highway
Golden Gate sung by Al Jolson

DSC_0281It seems to me that the Lincoln Highway is eclipsed in popularity by Route 66. They’re both classic roads in North America, but Route 66 has pop culture behind it. There’s the TV show Route 66, the Bobby Troup song (Get your Kicks on) Route 66, when the Joad family left Oklahoma in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of  Wrath (and in the movie) they did so on Route 66and the fictitious town of Radiator Springs in the Pixar movie Cars was once a popular stopover on Route 66.

But the Lincoln Highway start date proceeded Route 66 by 13 years and actually celebrates its 100 Anniversary this year. The eastern part of the Lincoln Highway is marked in TImes Square at 42nd and Broadway, the western terminus marker is in San Francisco in front of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. The transcontinental road goes through 13 states including Iowa.

Yesterday after my video shoot in Illinois I drove on part of the Lincoln Highway into Cedar Rapids. In fact, here’s a iPhone photo from my shoot of a Model T—the kind of car that would have first driven the Lincoln Highway back in the day.

photo-12

I was unaware of the Lincoln Highway until about a decade ago when I made a stop at the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney, Nebraska.  Then a few years ago I read The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate by Micahel Wallis and Michael S. Willimson.

There have been some songs and books that referenced the Lincoln Highway but none as enduring as those for Route 66. I actually have a road trip screenplay I’m working on centered on a journey over the entire Lincoln Highway. Just trying to do my best to raise its pop culture status.

Below is the trailer for The Long, Long Trailer starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.  The script written by Albert Hackett and Frances was based on the memior of the same name by Clinton Twiss (including segments on the Lincoln Highway).  The second video is the PBS documentary A Ride Along the Lincoln Highway produced by Rick Sebak.

For more information check out the Lincoln Highway Association.

Scott W. Smith

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photo-11

For years I drove through Illinois on I-80 to and never had a chance to stop in the Peru and Starved Rock area because I was either on my way to Chicago or heading home from Chicago. But I actually had a shoot in Peru the last two days so had a chance to kick around there and finally visit nearby Starved Rock State Park.

Though the area is just two hours west of downtown Chicago it’s quite a different world. I was hoping to shoot one of the many waterfalls they sometimes have there, but was told they were dry this time of year. So here’s some postcards from the road I shot on my free time in the area apart from the realty auction show I was shooting.

By the way, the 1989 movie Prancer written by Greg Taylor and starring Sam Elliot and Academy Award-winner Cloris Leachman was shot partly at Starved Rock. But I think “Starved Rock” is just begging to be the title of its own movie. (Maybe a reader from the area can pass on where that name originally came from.)

DSC_0109

DSC_0120

DSC_0143DSC_0105

Scott W. Smith

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“We make a living telling the history of America…one piece at a time.”
American Pickers

photo-8

Yesterday I stopped by Antique Archaeology in LeClaire, Iowa. Mike Wolfe once opened up a bicycle store and repair shop in Bettendorf, Iowa and that eventually led him to collecting and selling antique bikes. Fast forward to today where he is widely known for his show American Pickers which airs on the History Channel.

On the show he and Frank Fritz travel throughout the Midwest looking for antiques and collectibles.  I’ll have to double check my facts, but I was once told by a production friend in Iowa that Mike had been shooting You Tube videos for years before his concept became a very popular hit TV program.

File that under “Dream big, but take small steps.”

photo-9

P.S. I’m actually doing a video shoot today in a barn in Illinois that is similar yet different from American Pickers.

Scott W. Smith

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