How To Use Dramatic Irony for More Than Shenanigans

The second installment of Read Like a Writer, Recommended Reading's series on the craft of fiction

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Welcome to Read Like a Writer, a new series that examines a different element of the craft of fiction writing in each installment, using examples from the Recommended Reading archives. Each month, the editors of Recommended Reading—Halimah Marcus, Brandon Taylor, and Erin Bartnett—will select a few stories that illustrate a specific technique, style, or writing challenge. 

In the first installment of Read Like A Writer, we discussed how to write an ending that is surprising yet inevitable. In this installment, we’re going to talk about another way to build momentum in narrative by thinking about how that “surprise” element can be turned into suspense. Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the difference between surprise and suspense by inviting you to imagine a bomb under the table. If neither the characters nor the audience knows about the bomb, and it goes off, that’s a surprise. If the audience knows about the bomb, but the characters do not, and the audience anticipates the bomb going off, that is the suspense. The key difference is dramatic irony, that old dusty literary concept we all learned in high school. 

If the audience knows about the bomb, but the characters do not, and the audience anticipates the bomb going off, that is the suspense.

But dramatic irony has much subtler applications than high school curriculum allows. Alice Munro opened my mind to the potential of dramatic irony and it’s painful pleasures with her story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” In it, a woman named Johanna goes to work for a man and his teenage granddaughter, Sabitha. Johanna is an object of mockery for the Sabitha and her friend Edith because she lacks fashionable clothes and interests. Sabitha and Edith begin writing Johanna love letters that purport to be from the Sabitha’s’s father, and Johanna falls in love with the father through letters he did not write. Eventually, she writes that she is coming to live with him, packs up, and leaves.

I experienced this short story like a horror movie, my dread mounting, my palms sweating. My compassion for Johanna grew proportionally to my certainty that she would be heartbroken and humiliated. But Munro, the master, would never do something so predictable and cheap. When Johanna goes to live with the father (spoilers here), they fall in love and live happily ever after. 

Even when a story isn’t dealing with bombs, dramatic irony is often something that is set and later deployed. The dramatic irony in “Hateship, Friendship” is that I, the reader, know something Johanna does not, which is the true author of the love letters. Munro uses that knowledge to heighten the emotion of my reading experience, and then deploys it in a self-aware way that undermines my expectations. 

We can’t all be as good as Munro, but we can borrow a few tricks. Here are three stories from the Recommended Reading archives that deploy dramatic irony in complex and unexpected ways of their own. - HM

A Beautiful Wife is Suddenly Dead” by Margaret Meehan

In Margaret Meehan’s “A Beautiful Wife Is Suddenly Dead,” Karen Roberts wants a made-for-TV life. A high school English teacher who cliff-noted her way through her own education, Karen prefers to imagine herself as a character in another story—a teacher whose “students might erupt into applause, hearts bursting, changed forever” à la Dead Poets Society. After school hours, she fantasizes about the countless, brutally murdered women in her favorite true crime shows, now suddenly beautiful and talented in the past tense. She opts for hair extensions, long red nails, and smooth, waxed skin. She has a husband and she tolerates him, but mostly she’s annoyed he’s not willing to play a more interesting role than “doting husband.” Karen is what some might call “basic,” and what others might call “unlikeable.”  

But from the very first line of the story, we know that Karen’s story is going to get less basic: “Karen Roberts is going to fall out the window.” It’s quintessential dramatic irony—we know Karen is going to fall, she doesn’t. In her introduction to the story, Halimah Marcus calls the opening line of the story a dare. It’s fun to think about dramatic irony as a dare. Like dares, which are performed for the cringing pleasure of others, dramatic irony often relies on a sense of dread. We know something terrible is going to happen, but the character is blissfully ignorant in a way that allows them to continue living out their lives. There’s a measure of schadenfreude fueling our progress from paragraph to paragraph. 

In “A Beautiful Wife,” the feeling powering our experience of the story may start off as dread, but as we get to know Karen, and her obsession with true crime shows, their “miraculous recasting of mediocrity in death,” our dread lifts into something more like delight. Who is Karen, this unapologetically vain woman who is kind of okay with being a beautiful dead one? Meehan subtly guides our attention by creating an unflinching portrait of an unlikeable woman who dreams of living at the center of a more dramatic life. We’re consuming her like she consumes true crime. But she’s not like those other true crime girls. The story dares you to care about Karen, to care about whether or not she gets what she wants. - EB

PU-239” by Ken Kalfus

“Pu-239” by Ken Kalfus is about a disgruntled employee at a Russian nuclear power plant, who, after an accident, steals weapon-grade plutonium to sell on the black market. Timofey’s health has been compromised by the accident, which exposed him to radiation. He knows he will likely die prematurely, and he has nothing to leave his family. The money he makes from the sale will be his life insurance. 

Fiona Maazel introduced the story when we published it in 2013. “It would undersell the story to suggest it’s just a satire,” she wrote. “No, this fiction has the higher aim of ennobling stupidity — of recognizing its power and aptitude for destruction.” The stupidity she’s referring to here is, at least to start, Timofey walking around Moscow with plutonium stored in a coffee can, strapped to his chest. 

It’s not that knowing that Timofey will die that creates the dramatic irony—he knows that too, on some level. Even a person with the most cursory knowledge of nuclear physics knows how catastrophically idiotic Timofey’s behavior is. This tension between the reader’s commonsense knowledge and the character’s reckless actions—the tension encapsulated in Maazel’s phrase “ennobling stupidity”—is where the true dramatic irony lies. Knowing what’s going to happen won’t drive a story; dreading it does. - HM

Alta’s Place” by Morgan Thomas

“Alta’s Place” charts Cory’s growing fascination with Alta, an enigmatic woman who appears one evening at the dry cleaner where Cory works with a coffee stain on her suit. Through their conversation, retold by Cory, we come to understand how Alta’s suit was stained during an asylum interview, and the circumstances under which Alta left her native Mongolia for Virginia. Her landlord discovered her living with another woman with whom she was in a romantic relationship and evicted her, an initial cruelty that had the ripple effect of forcing her to leave the country entirely.

In a subtle and masterful deployment of first-person point of view, the reader sees Alta as a kind of doubled. That is, we see Alta through her own words in scene and quoted dialogue, but we also see the narrator’s warped version of Alta. Morgan Thomas deftly reveals the ways Cory’s perception of Alta is curtailed by her own limited experience and by a tendency to objectify and exoticize. 

The dramatic irony that brings this story to its masterful and subtle conclusion stems from the gap between who Cory understands Alta to be and who Alta actually is. As a queer woman herself, Cory is alert to the realities of queer life in America, but she is at times inattentive to Alta’s reality and subtly invalidating of her experiences, eldiding them, wanting to make them smaller, more manageable than they are. Again and again, Cory references wanting to draw Alta. To touch her clothing. To eat her food. To become her, in a way. But Cory doesn’t question these impulses. She is unaware of this tendency in herself, but it is carefully wrought and visible for the reader, giving rise to a tension as we wait for it all to become clear to her. - BT

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