Thursday, October 15, 2015

No Limits: Ubiquitous Irony


Irony is the most important ingredient in all successful stories. It must be present in the story's setting, plot, character arcs, theme, style and tone.
I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.  (Jane Austen)
Irony must be obvious in the hook, the conflict of values, the moral premise, dialogue, wardrobe, landscape, and attitudes. Irony is the ever present dilemma in the heroine's mind as she can't decide to marry the guy or kill him.
Would you like me to press the wrinkles out of this shirt or burn it?  
There is situational irony, verbal irony, dramatic irony. In short there has got to be conflict in everything you write. Irony provides the emotional roller coaster that gives your reader (and you) the thrill of reading (and writing).
The meal was scrumptious. For desert let's put strawberry drool on shortcake and watch Silence of the Lambs. 
Irony supplies tension, suspense, intrigue without which you have no story.   In short, there is no limit to where irony must be used in your writing.


Like multilevel marketing you can make irony work at every turn. It works to engender interest at the level of WORDS with TURNS OF A PHRASE:
Clearly Confused * Pretty Ugly * Living Dead * Great Depression * Honest Politician
Or, on the level of SENTENCES, as exampled in my opening salvo, and here:
His compliment felt and smelled like an elephant sitting on my head.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... (Charles Dickens) 
Or, on the level of PARAGRAPHS:
Fearful that God would cast me into utter darkness or subject me to dismemberment, I frequently ran ahead too quickly. I often scribbled my first name in a rush...then recognize my error.  To me it looked like I had spelled SAINT...but then friends pointed out that I had scrawled STAIN. I could only hope that the errors in my life would be overlooked as typos. But alas, all too often they were real mistakes. (from the Preface of the writer's memoir, Growing up Christian.)
Or, on the level of chapters and entire books where the characters are struggling to overcome a weakness or some vice in order to achieve some noble goal. Such techniques make use of an ironic hook and a consistently applied moral premise. Here's one from my host's 2009 novel AUTUMN RAINS (Myra Johnson):
Trusting in one's own wisdom and knowledge leads to a dreadful imprisonment; but
Trusting in God's wisdom and knowledge leads to a pleasant freedom.
I have many examples of moral premise statements that guide the writing process on a page devoted to  the listing of Moral Premise Statements.

For me one of the great proofs of the importance of irony in stories is the public's obsession with the real lives of Hollywood Stars and celebrities. The irony is their glamorous on-screen persona juxtaposed to the tragedy of their off-screen and real lives. On screen we adore Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, but we're engaged in their real life battle to keep their marriage together.


The key to understanding and using irony in our writing is the ability to see it in everything around us. Back on November 17, 2014 I posted a pictorial essay on IRONY and NATURAL LAW, INSEPARABLE.

The point of the five (5) illustrated juxtapositions (in that post) was to show how, in just a few hours of careful observance what I expected and what actually happened were much different. When reality conflicts with expectations we end  up with drama, intrigue, suspense and the stuff of good stories—ta da—irony.

I'll let you visit that post later, but for now I want to get more mundane to demonstrate common every day drama and irony that literally surrounds us. What I'm going to next describe and SHOW YOU (I'm trying not to just TELL you), you can do everyday of your life. The more you do this, the more you'll find you can write ironic material that intrigues and engages your readers. So, here's what I did. On the morning I was scheduled to first start thinking about this blog post, I took a camera and walked around my house looking or irony in nature.  I was looking for things we normally think are normal, but finding in them or near them the abnormal, the juxtaposed irony, the conflict that creates tension and motivates us to action. My point is that these are mundane, nearly inconsequential. If there's irony in such lower-caste things, imagine the irony waiting to be tapped in the stuff that really matters, like people's lives.

The rose at left was probably prettier a few days before, but soon it would end up like its sisters on the right. The beautiful and the bald, part of the same plant. What character's are like that? I expect beautiful roses, but I find something else. Timing is everything,.

The patio outside my office door wall. Looks nice until you look close. Then, grime, moss, and cracks appear. Are their characters that seem good until you look close? 

Brown "Bunny Tail" plant looks attractive in my wife's front yard circular garden, until you look close and see the dreaded wrap-weed invading the plant. Do you have a character that is very attractive until you discover he or she's overly involved in another's life and willing to inhibit their growth?

Our backyard brick paver patio. It can look inviting, if I were to clean it up and blow off the leaves. But not obvious are the dangers: a tangled hose ready to trip, the lid to the septic tank which isn't so bad until during an patio lunch a guest asks what the blue lid is for—"It's where we put guests who are too inquisitive," And, the edge of the bench that is ready to tear-up your pants or scratch your leg. These are all juxtapositions that create tension and lurking drama. Do you have welcoming families that have hidden drama in every corner of their lives. 

There are good things too. On the left is the hostas plant that's been taking up space under our front window for years. Suddenly, we're surprised to find this red fruit hiding under several leaves. Perhaps you have a character that has a hidden gift, or a forgotten treasure in that storage unit about to be auctioned off on reality TV. BEtter get over there and look inside. (On the other hand, this red thing that appeared this summer may be extremely poisonous.) 

Ah, and then there's the irony of golden rod and their daily visitors. Don't get too close to smell the flowers, your nose may never smell again. Do you see it? Irony is like that. You don't see danger until it flies up your nose. 

This is suppose to be a 6-second Vine post. (My first.) It's the scene I walked out on as I was starting this blog.  The expectation is that my van would start.  But the reality is it won't. This tow truck arrives and it does what is improbable—speeds my inoperative van back along the road—albeit riding piggyback.


This is so important it is the subject of the very first episode of my on-line Storycraft Training Series, described at the end of his blog with a code you can use for 30% PFF the regular price.

Aristotle, in POETICS, is known for his insights on narrative theory. For me the most important is his challenge to write stories that are PROBABLE IMPOSSIBILITIES, not improbable possibilities. The Probable Impossibility (of the main plot) is the story HOOK that maintains the interest of your reader and even maintains YOUR interest was you write.

But the concept of a probable impossibility, or ironic hook, should pervade every aspect of the story. In successful stories you'll find irony in the setting, plot, character arcs, theme (the moral premise) style, and tone. It is well worth your time to think and study this so much that it becomes automatic. When you get this down, it will be hard to write any sentence without juxtaposing opposite concepts.
The wolf looked so dainty in grandma's bonnet.  


The following two slides (from my workshop on Goals, Subplots and Irony) illustrate how a proper moral premise statement can keep your writing ironic, on all levels.

Dramatic Irony (whether it's found in a word, sentence, paragraph, chapter or novel) involves a goal that a character is trying to achieve. The successful author will set up the story so that the goal seems impossible to achieve. Imagine the hook for the story of David and Goliath: Near naked shepherd boy meets war-hardened, armored giant. Applying natural law and removing the cleverness of the author (or the grace of God), the natural expectation is that David will be quickly dismembered.

But through the cleverness of the author and the grace of God, that is not what happens. 

David slays Goliath and cuts off his head. The opposite of the expectation is achieved.

The moral premise sets up this expectation and the path to unexpected success:

Egotism leads to death and a rout; but
Meekness leads to victory and pursuit. 

The moral premise, of course, articulates inner values and outer consequences. Meekness is metaphored in David's physical appearance. Egotism is metaphored in Goliath's appearance.

Here's a tip: In your writing don't set up the irony by telling your reader what the the inner values are (Egotism and Meekness), that would be TELLING your reader what is going on. Instead, make your reader work by describing the physical appearance of the setting, character, etc, and ensuring that you're establishing a metaphor for the inner values that drive the drama. Juxtaposing egotism and meekness is ironic, but you SHOW the personification of those values in your descriptions of appearance and actions...and of course consequences.   

A final reminder of the potential and on-going irony in your stories is this cyclic model.

In achieving our goals, all humans (and all your characters), will continually follow this cyclical sequence:
1. VALUES you hold, will lead you to a...
2. DECISION, that when mature causes you to take an...
3. ACTION, which results in a...
In pursuit of a goal you, or your character, will repeat this cycle over-and-over again, until your goal is achieved, or the goal is given up for lost.  You can start anywhere in the cycle, but I like to explain it by starting with an inherent value the character holds. The VALUE and the DECISION are mental processes. They are invisible. (In a novel you still have to SHOW values and decisions through description of physical metaphors or effects—a tense forehead, tight lips, nervous shaking, speechlessness, mismatched socks, or an askew wig.) The Decision causes your character to take an ACTION, which results in some CONSEQUENCE, which are both physical and visible.

Notice that the Value, Decision and Action are ALL under the control of the character (or you). But that the consequence is NOT under the character's control. It is solely determined by Natural Law.

Now, the cycle repeats. The Natural Law consequence informs the person's value by reaffirming the original value (making it stronger), or challenging the value (making it weaker or different). If the consequence is good, the value will be reinforced, if the consequence is bad, the value is devaluated or changed.

The irony occurs on two levels.
  • The action may have been meant to change something outside of the character, but the consequence made it worse. That's irony.   
  • The action may have been meant to change another person, but the consequence changed the person who took the action. That's irony. 
  • The consequence is not controlled by the action. This is the opposite of what we expect. That's irony. 

This cycle is also very present in the Scene part of the Scene-Sequel Model where a character begins with a goal in mind, takes action and pursues the goal, then natural law takes over and a conflict results ending in some disaster. That disaster (which keeps the reader turning pages to find out what happens) is the irony that the character did not expect when the goal was first embraced.

DISCOUNTED OFFER....and Final Example

Last year I posted a 10-Episode (7-hour) Video On Demand training series at Vimeo called Storycraft Training.  It's the equivalent of a 2-day workshop. The very first episode deals with IRONY and expands on Aristoteles's 6 PILLARS OF A GREAT STORY. Visitors to this blog may Buy or Rent the Entire Package of 10, for 30% of the regular price. This offer is good from October 15, 2015 through November 14, 2015. You can purchase the sessions and download them to your computer to have forever. Or you can rent and stream them. You may share the promotional code with your friends. The code is "SEEKERVILLE" and the readers of this Seekerville blog are the only ones to know it…so far.


Now, there's a contextual reason I mention the memoir. It's really about irony. And I'm using irony in its marketing. One would think that a memoir about a guy's journey of faith would be a serious didactic tome on theology and religion. Well, it is a tome, and it is about religion and theology...but I knew I had to make the journey and the writing ironic. So, let's just say I had some fun. Here's the back cover copy. These are the hooks...also known as early promotional blurbs.

“Thanks, Stan. I now have work for the rest of my life.” (His libel Attorney)
“We'd excommunicate him, but we're not Catholic.”  (His former Pastors)
“We had an accident...and I can’t remember a thing.” (His Nephew)
“None of this is true, and I have the scars to prove it.”  (His Sister)
“I had no part in it. It’s a comma disaster.” (His exhausted Editor)
“I tried to put him in jail, but he was too young.”  (His cop Aunt)
“Just goes to prove that he's just uneducated.”  (His Mom)
“I had no idea what to do. He was beyond me.”  (His Dad)
“Where do they bury the survivors?”  (His Wife)

If that copy is interesting to you, then the use of irony has NO LIMIT.


Stan Williams

1 comment:

Myra Johnson said...

It was such fun having you as our guest in Seekerville last week, Stan! We're so grateful for your insights and for taking the time to answer everyone's questions.

I'm also a very happy subscriber to your video training series! Your concepts, instruction, and clear examples have helped me become a better writer.