Unlock the Power of Dramatic Irony for a Captivating Story
If you're writing a book, screenplay, or short story, you want to infuse it with as much suspense as possible. Dramatic irony is a powerful writing tool you can use to build suspense. In this article, I'll give you the definition of dramatic irony, provide examples, and offer tips for applying it to your story.
What is dramatic irony?
Dramatic irony is a literary device in which a writer reveals information to the audience that one or more characters in the story don't know. The technique is used to build suspense.
How to build suspense with dramatic irony
Suspense occurs when a writer holds off on revealing information the audience cares about. In general, the more the audience cares about the information, and the longer the audience waits for the answer, the greater the feeling of suspense.
The audience's level of interest in a piece of information relates to how emotionally invested they are to the character(s) the information affects.
For example, if you've developed a great lead character the audience connects with, and then put that character in a dangerous situation, the audience should worry about the outcome of that situation: Will the protagonist make it out alive?
As the audience waits to see how the situation plays out, a strong sense of suspense will develop.
To create suspense with the dramatic irony writing technique, follow these steps:
Since the character doesn't even know about the explosive situation he's in, he doesn't do anything to help himself. This idea of helplessness makes a negative outcome seem more likely, and drives up the tension.
How POV relates to dramatic irony
Dramatic irony is rooted in information imbalance - your audience knows something certain character(s) don't. The POV you tell your story from will limit the level of information your audience can know that specific characters don't.
For instance, if you're telling a story from a first-person POV, with your main character as the subject of every scene, your audience wouldn't be able to know anything your lead character doesn't. Since the protagonist is directly telling the story, whatever the audience learns would come from him.
Thus, with first-person POV, you wouldn't be able to apply dramatic irony to any predicaments your main character is in. However, if you went with a third-person POV, you would have the option to put your protagonist into a dynamic with dramatic irony.
With a third-person POV, your main character does not need to be in every scene. You can show a dangerous situation developing in a place your main character is not yet in, then have the lead character arrive a few scenes later.
If you plan to create suspense via dramatic irony, be mindful of selecting a POV for your story that permits the intended information imbalances.
Examples of dramatic irony
Let's look at examples of dramatic irony across three popular genres: thriller, romance, and comedy.
Dramatic irony in a thriller
Wesley, the villain, gets on a train. Its number, 208, is stamped on the front. He hides a bomb in a luggage compartment. No passengers or staff notice. The bomb is set to go off at 8 AM, in thirty-two minutes. Wesley gets off at the next stop.
Ryan, the protagonist, is waiting at a train station for his daily commute to the office. A train with "208" on the front stops at the station and Ryan gets on. He calmly reads emails on his phone. The time is 7:45 AM. He writes an email. The time is now 7:54 AM.
Dramatic irony in a romance
Lydia, the main character, is getting ready for a date with a man named Paul, at a restaurant called Avery Cafe. This date would be her first since her bad breakup with Charles, who cheated on her with her former best friend.
Charles and Lydia's former best friend pull up to a valet in his car. Holding hands, they walk inside a restaurant, an "Avery Cafe" sign out front.
Inside, they're seated at a table. Paul is seated at a nearby table for two. The seat across from his is still empty. He's never met Charles or Lydia's ex-best friend, so doesn't recognize them. Paul seems to notice his guest walk in. He stands and waves.
Dramatic irony in a comedy
Hal, the protagonist, receives a call from his boss to join him at a prospect's house to demo the new product Hal invented. Hal, excited, says he'll be right there.
As a child, Hal was attacked by a flock of birds and wet his pants. Now an adult, he has a psychological complex about the incident - if he's too close to a bird, he risks wetting his pants. Embarrassed, he has never told anyone about this except his therapist.
Hal's boss is inside a mansion with an eccentric businessman. The businessman has over a dozen exotic pets. One is a large bird, perched on his shoulder. Hal's boss tells the prospect that Hal should be here in five minutes.
Dramatic irony's inverse
To keep your scenes fresh, you shouldn't just rely on dramatic irony to create suspense. Its inverse is a very effective tool as well: A character knows something the audience doesn't.
Give a character the answer to a question the audience wants to know, however, don't reveal the answer right away, building suspense.
For example, Jen goes into her parents' attic. She screams. The scene ends. In the subsequent scene, she is shocked and nervous. She clearly saw something in the attic that petrified her, however, the audience has not been told what.
She keeps the sight a secret through most of the story, not telling her parents or anyone else about it.
Want more writing advice?