Take note, listener: at the end of this podcast, Oren will ask Chris what her favorite example of dramatic irony is, and she will have no answer. It will be very embarrassing for Oren, and everyone will have a good laugh.
Generously transcribed by SpacePineapple . Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
This episode was made possible by the support of our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek.
Oren: And welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is—
Oren: And today, something is happening that the listeners know about, but we don’t. And it’s going to be very ironic as we do things that—we don’t know what’s happening, but it casts it in a different light. I don’t know, maybe a meteor’s about to hit the podcast, or something. And the audience knows ‘cuz they saw it in the cut scene.
Chris: It’s like, (pretending to be upset) no, don’t talk about that. Voldemort is listening. Oh no, I just said his name.
Wes: We are so doomed and we don’t even know that we’re doomed.
Oren: No, we don’t, and it’s great fun. So today, we’re talking about dramatic irony, which—because I love definitions—if I understand correctly, and I’m sure Wes can correct me if I’m wrong, is that dramatic irony, traditionally, refers to when a character says something whose meaning is changed by events that the character doesn’t know about, but that the audience does.
Oren: And it can be expanded, in some cases, to beyond words, like if we see a character walking down the stairs and we’ve earlier seen that there is a murderer hiding at the bottom, that could be considered dramatic irony, even though there’s no dialogue and not what we would consider traditional irony involved.
Wes: Yeah. I think the only thing I can do is agree and piggyback, and say that, if characters make observations and they take actions that seem reasonable to them based on the knowledge that they have. And if the readers, or the viewers, or the audience have more information than the characters, then they know that the actions that the characters are actually taking are uninformed. So, that’s basically creating dramatic irony. We just know more than them.
Oren: Yeah. And as a rule, you tend to see dramatic irony more in visual mediums, like movies, TV, plays, or comic books. Although you can get it in prose, too, it’s just not as common. And the reason is that, to get it in prose, you have to show something that the character doesn’t know, and most prose stories are written in limited viewpoint. So, by definition, that becomes more difficult. And I’ve actually seen some writers add a new viewpoint character just to achieve some dramatic irony, and I generally don’t think that’s worth it.
Wes: You know, it’s interesting, ‘cuz I was thinking about this as well. Even if we go back to 19th century novels and stuff, they largely relied on third person omniscient. You still really don’t see a lot of dramatic irony showing up there, because that narrator is still being really choosy with what to show you and what not to show you. And I think that that was kind of interesting, ‘cuz it seems like that would be the way to provide a little bit of extra conflict or tension or something, by showing something happening and then something else. But I think there is still that tendency, regardless of how you’re doing your point of view, to still kind of keep things a little bit more limited. I’m sure there’s exceptions, but I was wracking my brain for some of the more popular ones that I thought might have used it, and no, Dickens didn’t do it at all. And that guy wrote like a thousand novels that were all omniscient, but he only kind of wanted to parse things out as it felt appropriate, you know?
Chris: It does feel like a lot of writers who are writing omniscient don’t necessarily know what to do with it. And we can go to the classics. There are certainly some writers who write omniscient very well, but still tend to stick close to the character’s experience. But there’s a lot of people who write omniscient because they want the freedom to not write limited, but they also don’t really use it to its full capabilities.
Wes: Yeah, definitely.
Chris: They don’t know how to give the audience extra information and also strategically not give them information in a way that really leverages omniscient to its fullest.
Oren: Yeah. And at the same time, I think it’s worth pointing out that, with a third person omniscient, although you can include any information you want to, it still has to be relevant somehow in a way that is clear to the reader. If you have a story of knightly combat, and the knights are fighting and they’re your main characters, and then every once in a while, you just cut over to describe this pigeon and what this pigeon is doing. It’s like, yeah, you can do that with third person omniscient, but you shouldn’t, because it’s boring. Even if it turns out later that pigeon is important. I see a lot of authors make this mistake, where they’re like, “but I need to establish this pigeon, because later, the pigeon is going to fly into one of the knight’s faces, and it’s going to be great.” And that doesn’t happen for a hundred pages. And until that happens, this pigeon is boring.
Chris: Well, if you have an omniscient narrator, though, and it’s done well, this is where the whole (dramatic voice) “little did he know” comes in. If you have a good omniscient narrator, the omniscient narrator has the potential to just tell the audience why it matters. To be like, “and this pigeon, not knowing that it would be soon on a collision course with the knight’s face,” or something.
Wes: (laughs) I need to read this story now. I’m hooked.
Chris: The course of events would all happen because of one pigeon.
Oren: Right. And in that case, that could be great. You could have a great story doing that.
Chris: I will say, that when it comes to the other way to do dramatic irony in writing, the multiple points of view, I would definitely agree that having an extra point of view just for the sake of dramatic irony is not usually enough to justify—if you’re doing lots of dramatic irony throughout the story and you find other uses for that viewpoint, it might be a contributing factor. But at the same time, I still think that it’s something that writers could stand to use more often than they do with multiple POVs, because having dramatic irony with multiple POVs requires that your different viewpoint characters are actually interacting in some way.
Wes: Definitely. Yep.
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: And the biggest problem with multiple points of view is that these characters are just off—they’re siloed, each of them off on their own in their own plot line. We’re basically reading different stories, and it’s just less engaging. And if you think of the dramatic irony, now they have to be interacting in some way, or there is no dramatic irony.
Oren: Right. And that’s what makes some POVs in the Song of Ice and Fire work, and some don’t. ‘Cuz when they’re all hanging out in Westeros, fighting each other, you’re like, “oh man, Tyrion’s doing this thing, and that’s going to change what happens with Cersei.” And that’s interesting, as opposed to, “and then Daenerys went and conquered another kingdom,” and it’s like, does it matter, though? Does anyone care? Not for five more books, apparently.
Wes: That’s getting at the heart of why I think, when dramatic irony is done well, it forces you to engage in the story. It draws you in more and it’s that knowing what could possibly happen, that makes you more invested in a really weird way? I’m suddenly watching a story, and I have more information than this character. I know that something good or bad is going to happen. And for me, anyway, I think the joy then is not in the resolution, but the process leading up to it. That, I think, was originally called catharsis. And one of the earliest examples we have with dramatic irony was Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. Oedipus, the King. It’s a drama, and a convention at the time was that they would have the argument at the beginning of the drama, which is kind of like an introduction or something, where somebody comes out on stage and says, “this is a story about Oedipus, whose parents abandoned him. And then he grows up, and then he slays his birth father and marries his birth mother.”
Oren: Spoilers, dude.
Wes: And yeah, the whole thing is just spoiled from the start. And then you experience the story. And then when Oedipus says things like, “if that guy killed that former king I’m in danger from him, too.” ‘Cuz I’m a monarch, and that guy … and it’s like, well, no. ‘Cuz you killed that guy. So that doesn’t work. And then all of his actions and his hubris and stuff lead up to that moment of realization where he realizes what happened. And then at that moment, all the things he said, all the deeds where you’re like, “why are you doing this? It’s not the case,” blah, blah, blah.It comes to a head. And then the resolution ideally pays off. In that case, he stabs his eyes out.
Oren: Which is certainly one way to resolve things.
Wes: Certainly one way to resolve things. And that was meant to be a cathartic, emotional release, because all that dramatic irony had been building up to that moment.
Chris: Where all the audience knew he was doing all of these things that were wrong, based on actual knowledge, but he didn’t know.
Wes: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: It comes to a boiling point.
Wes: It does, and I think since we brought up Song of Ice and Fire, I would be curious to know—it’s impossible to say, but the experience of—spoilers—the experience of Ned Stark’s death. How would our relationship with that character have changed? Had we known ahead of time that he was going to die. You’re watching it play out. Maybe it’s told through a frame story or something, but you’re watching it play out, and you know that he’s going to die. But the shock of his death as it happens is powerful, because he’s there. It’s a close POV. He’s telling the story. But I think it could arguably be also done very well with dramatic irony, because you would just kind of be holding out hope that he would not succumb to that fate. Especially if the character’s doing things to endear him to you, it’s definitely a tool that I think can get leveraged in different ways.
The storytelling tool that it uses, the reason it’s done in the story, of course, is to—George R. R. Martin did it to basically tell everyone that his story is not going to be predictable, that good guys aren’t safe, blah, blah, blah. That was its purpose. And it did that very well. But I can definitely see an alternate story where, instead, we have some sort of fortune teller come in and be like, (old person voice) “oh, your good deeds will be the death of you,” (laughs) and then watch him continue to make decisions that put him and everything he cares about in danger, because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.
Oren: Yeah. If the story was specifically about Ned Stark, I think that would work really well. The fact that the story has to continue beyond Ned Stark maybe would mean that’s a little too much focus on Ned. ‘Cuz the death of Ned Stark is a super delicate balancing act of—it has to be something that’s unusual enough to actually shock you, and then be like, “oh, well, I guess anyone could die now,” and—spoilers—no, but that’s the idea. But at the same time, you have to not put down the book when Ned Stark dies, you can’t be so devastated that you’re like, “oh, well, there’s no reason for me to keep reading this anymore.” (laughs) One thing that I think that dramatic irony can be used for very effectively, is to give things a sense of scale, especially when you’re in third person omniscient.
I’m gonna use two examples; one that used dramatic irony well, and one that failed to use it when it should have, (outraged voice) from the same book. This book is called Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks. It’s the first book of The Culture series. The main character is a spy operative dude in this big intergalactic war. And there are multiple sections where it’s very difficult to tell what’s happening. And part of that is because the author has a bad habit of the main character learning things, and then not telling us what they are.
Chris: It’s hard to tell whether it’s omniscient POV or just incredibly distant, limited POV, because it’s both incredibly distant, but then the audience is rarely informed of anything that the main character doesn’t know. And it’s not a great combination.
Oren: No, but I suspect, I’m like 99% sure that a big part of why these things are so confusing is that, in many of these cases, we’re supposed to be seeing only a small part of what’s happening, because the idea—it’s supposed to give a sense of scale. It’s supposed to show that the main character is small and he’s on this enormous ship that is crashing, and from where he’s standing, he can’t see the ship crashing. All he can see is the wall in front of him suddenly coming closer as the ship’s structure compresses. And that’s a cool idea, but it makes it really hard to tell what’s going on in a lot of these scenes. But later, we have a sequence where we see these two warships from the other side perform this fancy maneuver. And they do this big grand-scale thing. And then we cut back to the main character, and he sees a small part of what they’re doing. He sees the part of it that is relevant to him, and makes conclusions that are, in this case, false. And we know that he’s being tricked by these warships, but we also know that this is bigger than just him. And we’ve seen more of what’s going on using omniscient, and in this case, dramatic irony, to sort of drive that home and it makes it feel like this war is big. It’s not just one person, even if he’s important.
Wes: That’s nice. Yeah. That’s a great example. And I like how it’s just taking good dramatic irony—basically, whoever’s writing it is kind of saying, “well, I’m going to opt to not go for a surprise or a shock,” which, more often than not, is considered situational irony, where we kind of just know the same thing. And then the end result is not what you would have expected. The twist or something is situational irony. So I like the idea that somebody who’s employing that is sick of that. They’re like, “you know what, everybody’s just trying to trick everybody, trying to get a surprise out of them. I’m going to tell them exactly what’s happening. I’m going to show them what’s happening. And then they’re going to enjoy watching the characters make misinformed decisions.”
Chris: Yeah, I do like the fact that dramatic irony is a way to be clever while giving the audience more information, not less.
Wes: Yeah, definitely.
Chris: Too many storytellers are just lured into—they want some clever reveal, and that depends on depriving their audience of information. And often that’s just information the audience should know. But this still lets them do something clever while giving the audience more information, which I think is a good thing.
Oren: And you can build some wonderful dread, as the character moves towards something that you know is a bad idea. And you build the suspense and the tension. The 100 does that really, really well. And the 100 is, of course, a TV show, and dramatic irony comes a little bit more naturally to TV shows than it does to books. But there’s this whole sequence that—and this is some spoilers for the first season of the 100—where, up on the space station, they’re like, “our environment systems are failing. We have to call several hundred people or we all die.” And then the dramatic irony of that is that we know that the planet is habitable, because they sent some people down, but they think those people are all dead. And the people on the planet are trying to find a way to contact the ship, so we know that their job is actually way more urgent than they think it is. Because if they don’t contact the ship in time, then the ship—well, it’s actually a space station, not a ship—but then the space station will cull a bunch of people, and they’re doing that because they don’t have all the information, and it’s like, “ah, my seat. I can only feel the edge of it.”
Wes: I think that that’s a fabulous example. I was gonna share the end of Romeo and Juliet is dramatic irony coming to a head, too. He believes that she’s dead. We know that she’s not. And when he decides to take his own life by poison, and then we’re just sitting there, feeling that anxiety, the sadness, and the powerlessness that Romeo and Juliet were both feeling from the conflict between their families. Suddenly we are with them in that moment to experience that loss of power and feeling like that’s the only escape, but you also don’t want them to do it. You’re like, God, just wake up, just wake up.
Oren: Excuse me. Maybe you felt that way. I saw the 1800s revised version in which she does wake up, and everything’s fine. So, happy endings for all. (laughs) I love that they were like, “ah, Shakespeare’s too sad.”
Wes: “Let’s make it better.”
Chris: So, one thing I want to talk about is—as we kind of hinted at but never said outright, dramatic irony is really good for raising the story’s tension. It’s like you know an assassin is hiding under the protagonist’s bed. And the protagonist is walking around the room, getting ready, brushing teeth, getting closer and farther away from the bed. And something that is very normal suddenly becomes a very high tension moment, because you know—But I do see a lot of storytellers try to use something similar when setting up villain plans that tend to not work out. So very commonly, you’ll see something where the villain is just like, (Dracula voice) “ah, and they are doing exactly—everything is unfolding just how I planned.” (laughs) “Ah, they don’t know, but they are walking into a trap.” And these lines are clearly supposed to be raising tension. But they don’t. They don’t raise tension.
Oren: No. No, they lower it, if anything.
Chris: And so, the problem here is that it’s not real dramatic irony, because we don’t know exactly what the villain has planned. It’s way too vague. For instance, if the protagonist was just going to meet with somebody and the villain was like, (Dracula voice) “haha, everything is unfolding just how I planned,” that doesn’t work. But if we know that the villain has replaced the person the protagonist is meeting with an agent—with an assassin. Now we have enough information to actually let it work.
Oren: I have a question about that.
Oren: ‘Cuz I’m thinking, and I’m like, all right, I can obviously see why a bad guy being like, “everything is unfolding as I have foreseen” is not really raising tension. ‘Cuz it’s just like, apology, Emperor Palpatine. But part of me wonders if this is an issue of execution, because what I imagine for a different scenario, like the hero has just broken through the outer gate or whatever, and then we cut to the bad guy in his lair or whatever. And the Lieutenant runs up and is like, “Your Evilness, the hero has just broken through the first defense line,” and maybe the bad guy looks up and says, “Good,” or something. Something really short. And then we cut to the hero getting ambushed, or something. I feel like that would be effective. Am I just wrong? Is that not actually a good idea?
Chris: I think that having the hero being ambushed is the part of that raised tension. I think that, even with good, non-cheesy execution, I don’t think that would be effective, personally. It’s really about how much cred do you have with the audience? I think partly, and at this point, I don’t think that a villain who just does that without backing it up is very credible. Now, if you had a really good work, and you had shown a villain to be super competent, maybe the audience would trust the villain enough that that might make a difference to them. But even so, it would still be telling instead of showing. It wouldn’t hit home in the same way. Even if they did believe the villain.
Wes: I second all of that, and I think good dramatic irony requires anticipation, and how quickly it’s executed can really affect whether or not there’s actual payoff, in terms of actually creating the irony of it. If there’s a situation like you described, I don’t know. I would say that probably isn’t very effective, just because that’s like, “I guess I got a little bit more information, but I’ve already moved on.” I didn’t have any time to process that with the characters, to then think about how they’re acting without the same information that I have. So I feel like there’s some balancing act there, with how much time they have to do stuff with the lack of information that they have, for you to also watch that and know that you have the other information.
Chris: Right. And if you just know the villain has some plan, but you have no idea what it is, then you don’t get that drama of watching the protagonists do things in ignorance and being like, “no, don’t do that,” because you have no idea what they shouldn’t or should do.
Oren: Yeah. I think it’s definitely true. I think in my scenario, I’m imagining a villain who we’ve already seen being threatening, which is—establishing your villain being threatening is a huge thing that a lot of stories fail to do. So I think that would probably be dependent there. Another thing you can use dramatic irony for is what I call “double dramatic irony,” which is where you think that the hero is walking into a trap, and you’re like, “oh no, the hero is walking into a trap.” But then it turns out the hero already knew about the trap. And it’s like, “whoa, I didn’t know the double thing.” And heist movies do that all the time. The mastermind in particular, ‘cuz the mastermind knows everything.
Wes: I think I’m on board for that, once every couple of years, ‘cuz I just feel cheated and it’s like, okay, you just lied to me. It worked that time, but that’s not a framework that I’m a huge fan of. It’s especially a problem in writing, because there’s usually an expectation that you’ll have a closer affinity with the character. I think, if you wanna do it in writing, then you should definitely do in omniscient.
Oren: Yeah. I definitely have read stories where it felt like the main character was hiding information from me for the sake of that kind of reveal. And I hate them. They’re so frustrating. It creates the sense of, well, literally anything could happen at any time. Because I can’t trust the narrator, and the narrator just lies to me without reason. And that just makes me feel really detached from the story. I was reading Six of Crows (by Leigh Bardugo). And Six of Crows does that all the time, where it’s a close narration, and the characters just don’t think about the secret reveal of their plan, even when they probably should be. And so it creates this feeling of, well, I guess the characters have an answer to everything, and there’s no challenge that actually threatens them at all. And then in the end, weirdly, they actually lose at the end. And I didn’t feel like they’d lost. I just kept waiting for the reveal that they’d won. And then the book ended, and I was like, oh, that was kind of weird.
Wes: It was weird.
Oren: I was just really disoriented.
Chris: Yeah, that situation, was also a lot of candy for them. (laughs) Pretty over-glorified protagonists that—you think that they’re about to be caught in a trap that suddenly is like, no, I totally predicted this entire trap. (laughs)
Wes: Yeah, I think it’s more interesting to—you can definitely use it as an opportunity for character growth, because you have this information the character doesn’t, and you’re watching the character do these things. And then the moment when the character acquires that information is really a defining moment, in how they react to it. And whether or not that’s the final resolution of the plot, or it’s happening throughout, in expressions of regret, or planning ahead, or joy, or something like that. It’s definitely a good opportunity for growth, but if you’re just having them get to that crux, and “ah, I knew about it all the time,” and it’s like, okay. So you’re just kinda cocky.
Chris: Yeah. And I think you’re right, Wes, where it does feel like it diminishes the conflict that just took place, kind of like when you reveal that, “oh, that villain, that big boss, wasn’t actually the big boss. That was just a villain. The whole time, he was working for this guy.” Something about that just kind of cheapens everything you just went through. And I feel that’s also a pitfall with this “double dramatic irony.”
Oren: And those are all things where you’re spending currency—you’re spending the currency of the audience’s trust in you, that you had to build up in other ways. And if you haven’t built it up, then you’re like going into “trust debt,” and then the audience will come and try to collect, and it’s just going to be bad.
Chris: Right. And with the candy of it, if you have a character that has got lots of good karma, that’s gotten spinach in the story, and really needs some candy, that could be great. Typically when we see these heist stories, though, the mastermind is just perfect in every way. There’s no catharsis when the character gets that candy, because we haven’t built up the need for it.
Oren: Yeah. And heist novels that are written in the style of heist films, I think are unintentionally exposing the weaknesses of that particular little sub-genre and its conventions. Because take, for example, Ocean’s Eight. I liked Ocean’s Eight. I thought it was a really fun movie. Ocean’s Eight as a book would be incredibly boring, because as a movie, basically everything goes their way always, and there’s really no serious tension or conflict for most of the movie. But it’s still fun, ‘cuz I’m still watching this all-star of awesome ladies hang out and be friends and do crimes. And that’s fun. I enjoy that. But a book doesn’t have that awesome, all-star cast of super great actresses. It’s got to use the story to get me in there, and that story is just paste. It’s basically nothing. And I think that, when authors try to write heist stories the same way you would write a heist movie, they just expose how much the heist movie is leaning on the charisma of the actors and the cool effects that we’re seeing.
Wes: We’ve talked a lot about character growth and tension and investment. But this definitely is a tool that could be used for creating humorous effect, as well. I think if we go back into drama, a Comedy of Errors-kind of situation is definitely—Shakespeare had tons of those, where people are changing clothes and tricking each other and pretending to be everybody else. And people are saying things, and confessing things, and everybody’s laughing, like, “oh, how embarrassing. They don’t know.”
Oren: “They don’t know?”
Wes: Can you guys think of any other, maybe modern examples?
Oren: Oh, my favorite. My favorite, ‘cuz I don’t know about the high-brow Shakespeare. But I’m a huge fan of the episode of Firefly, “Out of Gas.” It does this a lot, but my favorite one is when, in the flashback, Mal is like, “we got ourselves a genius mechanic,” and the audience is like, “ah, it’s Kaylee.” And it’s just some guy. And he’s like, “thanks, Mal, never been called that before.” He’s kind of a smarmy looking dude, too. And it’s like, what? What is happening? And it’s both funny and super intriguing. I’m like, how do we get Kaylee from this? What is happening? Is he a shapeshifter? Is Kaylee a changeling this whole time? I don’t know. So that’s probably my favorite humorous use of it, that immediately comes to my mind. Speaking of things that the audience knows and we don’t, we are out of time, actually. So, Chris, did you want to give a fun example before we sign off?
Oren: Okay, that’s fair.
Chris: Well, see, the dramatic irony there is that Oren, when he asked that, didn’t know that Chris really had no example.
Oren: I did not. Maybe the audience knew. I’ll put that in the show notes, so the audience will know. Alright, well, that’ll be it for this week. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will talk to you next week.
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