Norn Irony

I have this thing about how-to-write-a-screenplay manuals.  I’m always skimming them to check I haven’t missed something, and that no-one’s discovered a way to make the creative process easy… No luck so far.  There’s a book in my bathroom at the minute called ‘How Not to Write A Novel’ which has great fun mimicking the mistakes of up-and-coming authors – getting bogged down in irrelevant detail, copping out of the climactic confrontation, using words the writer doesn’t understand – but it’s a snide sort of pleasure reading it, because taking the piss out of other people’s efforts is a relatively easy way to get laughs.  Famous comedians have filled whole TV series with spoofs of other shows; ultimately it’s derivative and even lazy.  Coming up with something original is much harder to do, and those who try – even if they don’t entirely succeed – deserve credit.  (Even if we’re all too busy snickering to give it.)

Anyway, reading one particular guide to writing screenplays, a sentence caught my eye that went something like ‘When the audience knows something the characters don’t, you have irony.’  I thought, ‘That can’t be right.  It can’t be that simple.’

I looked up the definition of ‘irony’ on the Net, and apparently it is that simple – officially, anyway.  The term comes from the Latin term ‘ironia’ meaning feigned ignorance.  Almost every work of drama you care to name contains classic examples of irony: the first one that comes to mind, oddly, is the 1986 adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s Manon Des Sources.  [Spoiler alert! Skip the next paragraph if you haven’t seen it.]

A mean old farmer, jealous of the hunchback about to take possession of the neighbouring farm, secretly blocks up the hunchback’s well.  The hunchback, his crops failing, comes to the mean old farmer for help. We see the irony: he’s asking for help from the man who wants to destroy him.  In time the hunchback dies and the sour old farmer learns that the hunchback was the illegitimate son he never knew he had.  Big bitter payoff, full of irony.  It had me in buckets, I have to admit.

Except of course that according the classical definition the last bit shouldn’t count as irony, because the audience didn’t have that vital piece of information until the final reel. (Apart from those who’d read the book, that is.) (And sorry to anyone reading this who hadn’t seen the movie – I did warn you.)  That’s what bugs me about the accepted definition of irony: there is far more to it than ‘little does he know’.  An ending can be rich with irony and still come as a surprise to the viewer.

In drama, information does not always pass to the audience and stay there. The good storyteller rations it, sometimes withholding it to create tension and surprise.  At different stages of the story, the writer will give the initiative – the knowledge of the bigger picture, the secret plan – to one or more of three different parties: the protagonist, the antagonist, and the audience.

Take the first Die Hard movie.  New York cop Bruce Willis comes to LA at Christmas to visit his estranged wife, played by Bonnie Bedelia. While Willis is barefoot in the bathroom the office building is taken over by gunmen, led by villain Alan Rickman, claiming to be terrorists.  They know everyone in the building except Bruce Willis, and they don’t know that his wife is among their hostages.

At first the villains have the initiative.  We the audience quickly learn that they are thieves masquerading as terrorists, but it takes Willis a while to find that out, and longer still to convince the outside world.  Rickman is planning some spectacular diversion, but we the audience don’t know what it is, and Willis has to find out.  He learns Rickman plans to blow up the roof of the building so that the cops will think the villains are dead.  Though Willis fails to stop the explosion he saves the hostages.  Finally Rickman identifies Willis’ wife and threatens to shoot her until Willis reveals himself.  We know Willis has only two bullets left. Willis gives himself up, apparently unarmed, but we see at the last minute he has a gun strapped to his back with festive parcel tape.  He shoots the last two baddies.  As Rickman falls out the window he grabs the wristband of the Rolex watch Bonnie Bedelia received as a gift from her work colleagues.  Willis undoes the wristband and Rickman falls to his death.

From this summary we can see how information vital to each stage of the narrative is passed around.  Sometimes the audience shares knowledge with the villain – the flawed rescue plans of the FBI, for example; sometimes Willis knows something neither the audience nor the baddies know – the gun taped to his back; and a lot of the time Rickman knows something neither we nor the hero do – that he is relying on the FBI to cut the power that is keeping the building’s vault locked shut.  This frantic game of pass-the-parcel, played with information, generates tremendous narrative tension and pace.

This, in my humble opinion, shows how the accepted definition of irony is inadequate.  Yes, in tragedies like Manon Des Sources or Othello we the audience know more throughout than the hero, and their continuing ignorance is a vital part of the tragedy.  But real irony is deeper and more complex: it occurs when a character’s actions rebound on them in a way they never intended and never anticipated.

In Die Hard, when Bruce Willis first arrives at the office, his wife shows him the expensive Rolex watch she has received as a Christmas gift.  No-one says it out loud, but we know that as a cop he could never have afforded to buy her such a watch.  When Alan Rickman falls out the window, it’s that Rolex he grabs, and the watch that symbolised her independence and success nearly costs Bonnie Bedelia her life.  That’s what most of us understand as irony.

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo finds Juliet in a drugged sleep, thinks her dead, and kills himself.  We know she isn’t, and that’s classic irony.  Then Juliet wakes and sees Romeo dead, and kills herself.  That’s a richer dramatic irony, not because of what we the audience know, but because the actions Juliet took to save their love have doomed their love.*

I wrote a thriller once – yet to be produced (sigh) – where the villain, an arms dealer, spends a fortune developing a landmine to penetrate the latest generation of armour.  In the climactic fight our hero gets hold of a sample, and the villain tries to flee in his armoured car… okay, when I tell it like that you can see it coming, but it works in the script, honest.  And that’s dramatic irony – the villain is brought down by his own greed and cruelty.  Irony increases the audience’s satisfaction when witnessing the villain’s sticky end; if our heroes earn a reward that neither they nor we expected, it adds to the happiness of the ending.

The accepted definition of irony is so vague it’s practically impossible to write a piece that does not have some.  Try to portray the deeper, richer irony, when characters face the unexpected consequences of their own actions.  It’s a great way to create a snappy ending, if you need one… like I do at the moment.  Come back next time to see if I’ve thought of one.

*See? I don’t just watch Hollywood movies…though I did like Baz Luhrmann’s version.

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