Isn’t It Ironic?
At some point in my career as a high school English teacher, it became popular to use Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic” as a teaching tool for irony, which is a rhetorical device near and dear to an English teacher’s heart. I mean, we English teachers frigging love irony. It’s the best.
I don’t know if I ever included the song in a lesson, but I likely mentioned it because it was easy to pick on. “A fly in your Chardonnay” just seems like bad luck. And “rain on your wedding day”? Perhaps that would be ironic if you and your spouse-to-be had a destination wedding in a locale picked specifically for its lack of precipitation because you both hate rain?
Morissette’s song gave occasion for us all to guiltlessly shame someone for not knowing what we knew. We could share a laugh at her ironic lack of understanding of irony.
Here’s the thing, though: especially in the instances when Morissette fleshes out her examples with the tiniest bit of narrative, she isn’t wrong. Many of the situations she includes are, indeed, ironic.
And in fact, writers of stories really need to know that she’s not as wrong as she was reputed to be because the irony she identifies is pretty central to great storytelling.
The Ironic Death
Death by Water
Craig Mazin, writer of the HBO series Chernobyl, tells this amazing story about Jose Fernandez in Episode 403 of the Scriptnotes podcast:
This is a true story. Jose Fernandez is born in Cuba and at the age of 15 he escapes Cuba with his mother and his sister and many others, all packed in a very small boat. And during the difficult village he is awakened to the sound of someone yelling. That someone has fallen overboard.
And Jose, 15 years old, doesn’t hesitate. He dives into the choppy water to save whoever it is. And only when he drags this person back onto the boat does he realize he has saved his own mother.
Jose Fernandez grows up; he’s a hell of an athlete. He goes on to pitch. Major League baseball pitcher. And he’s really good. In fact, he is the National League Rookie of the Year. And he’s an All Star. His future isn’t just bright, it is glorious. Jose Fernandez is living the American dream.
But at the age of 24 Jose Fernandez dies. He doesn’t die from illness. He doesn’t die from violence. He dies in an accident. But not a car accident. He dies in a boating accident. A boating accident. Now, do you feel that? Do you feel more than you would if I had said he died of a blood clot? Well, why? I mean, death is death. Why does this detail of the boating accident make you feel more?
It’s ironic. We don’t expect that water, of all things, will be the demise of this particular hero, given that it was kind of the genesis of his excellence—at least within this story.
Death by Land
A friend of mine years ago told me that every time she’s driving in a car taking a left turn and has to wait for oncoming traffic, she is conscious of keeping her wheels straight, lest someone ram her from behind and send her right into the cars speeding at her. She is obsessive about this because she once read a book in which a character tells his son never to turn his wheels before it’s time to go through an intersection. And then, of course, the man dies in a car accident in which he gets rear-ended at an intersection and is sent careening into the oncoming traffic.
Like Mazin says, death is death. But there’s more poignance to the ironic death because it seems so brutally unfair, so particularly shouldn’t-have-happened.
This is what situational irony is all about. The Oxford English Dictionary’s third definition of irony: “A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.” (Emphasis mine)
Death by Air
The fly in Morissette’s Chardonnay might not qualify as irony, but there’s not even a smidge of a question about whether Mr. Play-It-Safe qualifies. Here’s the verse:
Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down he thought
“Well isn’t this nice…”
His inappropriately calm reaction aside (which is, at least, verbal irony), this is textbook situational irony in a story. This poor guy resolves once and for all to face down his fears, having determined (through therapy?) that he needs to put himself to this test. But the “universe” (of the story) delivers this cruelly unexpected fate. Not just death, but death coming from the one thing that may have made him triumphant.
See how this works? If Mr. Play It Safe had died in a boating accident and if Jose Fernandez had died making a left turn and if Mr. Left Turn had gone down in a plane, those stories would have been just a little less poignant, right?
Not Just Any Conflict
You know this much about storytelling: a character needs to face obstacles/conflict/setbacks in achieving a goal or desire. That’s storytelling 101. Robert Olen Butler defines a story as “yearning challenged and thwarted.”
The creator of story—you—needs to make things hard for the protagonist.
But it’s not just about piling on complication after complication. In good storytelling, the conflicts encountered by the character are tailored to that character’s concerns, beliefs, and situation.
And here’s where we approach the importance of irony. The problems a person encounters in an ironic situation are the very problems they thought they had under control and/or were trying to avoid. A character goes to great lengths to get the right dress for a wedding and shows up only to find someone else has the same dress. A man who has bought a lottery ticket every week for thirty years finally wins but then dies the next day.
Here’s another way of saying it: Ironic conflict brings about the particular kind of death that the character was most trying to avoid or seemed most capable of avoiding. And here, obviously, we can talk about kinds of death other than literal: death of purpose, death of a relationship, death of a belief, etc.
But do you see the importance of irony? If we want to challenge a character and really move her, the key conflicts at least have to seem “deliberately contrary” to what she expects.
Because that’s how you transform your character.
Indeed, ironic conflicts spur change much more effectively than your run-of-the-mill conflicts precisely because irony is about thwarting expectations.
When the character is confronted with ironic conflicts, they have to re-evaluate the belief system they had at the beginning of the story. Thus, the storyteller says to his character something like the following:
- You think life is fair; here’s evidence that it’s not.
- You think life is unfair; here’s evidence that there’s a karmic balance to things.
- You think you are worthless and incapable of being loved? Here’s someone who loves you anyway.
- You think you can keep your son safe; he doesn’t want to be safe.
- You think finding joy in your new home will help you adjust; it’s actually sadness that will ground you in what really matters and build a stable foundation for your adjustment.
Ironic conflict thus forces a reckoning. The character has to reevaluate their understanding of the world or “die.”
The Takeaway: What, Why, and How
Irony is obviously very difficult for people to wrap their heads around. It comes in many forms, and they’re all pretty convoluted. In verbal irony, for instance, “Yeah, right,” means “No. Wrong.”
It’s fun to quibble over the concept, but really, the important thing is that the storyteller be aware that not all conflicts are created equal.
The criteria for ironic conflicts are both of the following:
1) A thwarting of expectation
2) A targeted quality: as if the god of the universe (the author) has “genetically engineered” or tailored the conflict to the character’s exact fears or beliefs.
Irony makes for more poignant problems and spurs transformation. That’s why you should strive for some irony in your storytelling.
When you’re creating or revising conflicts/obstacles/problems (story-wide or at the scene level), ask a few questions:
- What’s the character’s belief about the way the world works?
- What sort of death does the character most fear at this point?
- What has the character done to achieve their current state?
Then tailor your conflicts to your answers.
- Undermine the belief
- Bring about that death
- Reverse their achievements
Example #1: Finding Nemo
In the prologue to Finding Nemo, Marlin has found a nice home in a reef for him, his wife Coral, and his babies-in-eggs. But that’s all reversed through ironic conflict when a barracuda shows up and kills Coral and all but one egg.
1) The belief: that his work is done, he is safe, secure, and happy with Coral.
Undermine it: the barracuda changes all of those beliefs.
2) The feared death: the death of his spouse.
Bring it about: Coral is killed.
3) Prior achievement: he picked out a lovely home with a view.
Reversal: when they go to see the view, the barracuda is waiting. We could say the view brings about the death.
Example #2: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The dementors in this third Harry Potter book are classic irony: they’re there to keep Harry safe, but they’re actually life-threateningly dangerous.
1) The belief: that the dementors are at Hogwarts to protect Harry from Sirius Black.
Undermine it: the dementors a) actually harm Harry by making him fall off his broom, and b) Harry learns that Sirius Black seems to have been immune to the dementors.
2) The feared death: the death of his parents, even though it already happened.
Bring it about: the dementors seem to awaken within Harry a suppressed memory of his parents’ last moments on earth before Voldemort killed them. He actually hears their voices.
3) Prior achievement: he defeated evil (Voldemort) twice.
Reversal: evil is now more present in the world than ever. Mostly coming from the thing meant to harness that evil.
There’s a sort of poetry to ironic conflicts. They cause expectations to circle back on themselves like snakes eating their own tails. And they’re beautifully patterned in their echoing of prior imagery and language.
But they’re often incredibly cruel. And they would mark writers who employ them as frighteningly sadistic if it weren’t for the fact that ironic conflicts often help deliver truth and/or spur a character to find a better self.
As Alanis says, “Life has a way of sneaking up on you/ Life has a way of helping you out.” If you have faith in your characters, run them through the irony gauntlet in order to help them become their best selves.
If you liked this article, you may also be interested in my articles on Character Arc and on Why Your Story’s Conflict May Fail to Grip Readers.