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.