There’s good fiction and there’s good fiction. There are stories that get the job done and entertain readers. And then there are stories that take everything to a new level. Naturally, we’d all like our own stories to be part of that second category! And how do we do that? One of the subtlest ways is by applying a little dramatic irony.
Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park remains one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s one of those special blends of thrills-and-chills genre nerdom—and amazing storytelling and artistic sensibilities. In honor of the major revival the series is having this summer (with the fun, but can’t-touch-the-original Jurassic World), we’re going to spend a couple weeks exploring some of the great lessons Jurassic Park has the ability to teach us.
First lesson? You guessed it: dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is the presentation of something incongruous. It’s a juxtaposition between what is presented on the surface of a story and what is really occurring under the surface. The dichotomy within this contrast functions on several levels:
1. It add layers of meaning to your story.
2. It offers deeper insight into the thematic principles.
3. It show readers something the characters themselves are missing.
The classic play Oedipus Rex is a frequently used example, in that the title character “meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” He sought to avoid fulfilling the prophecy that said he would kill his father and marry his mother, and yet ended up doing that very thing because of his attempt to do just the opposite.
Jurassic Park gives another great—and even more subtle example. One of the catchphrases throughout the movie is park founder John Hammond’s gleeful insistence:
We spared no expense!
With everything from the opulent visitors’ center, to Alejandro the chef to the state-of-the art defensive fences and cages for the dinosaurs, he quite literally did just that.
That’s the truth we see on the surface of this story. The irony, however, is that the entire crux of the story rests on the fact that Hammond did indeed spare expense: with his disgruntled computer technician Dennis Nedry. The brilliant slob Nedry sells his services to Hammond on the cheap and then resents the deal so much he ends up shutting down the entire park in an attempt to steal Hammond’s research.
This irony is present in the story’s very foundation, but the clever repetition of the “spared no expense” catchphrase hammers it home in a delightfully subtle way. It also manages to emphasize the ironic dichotomy of Hammond’s simultaneous innocence and culpability for the tragedies that ensue.
Consider your work-in-progress. What are the inherent ironies in your main plot situation and in your character’s motives and actions? Are there ways you can strengthen those ironies to allow them to play a more prominent role in your readers’ experience? Dramatic irony is a tremendous artistic tool in the hand of a knowing storyteller. Wield it with confidence, and your story will be effortlessly levelled up!