Dramatic Irony

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also published on the Story Grid website as Writing a Page Turner: Part 3

Today I wrap up my three-part series on narrative drive with a look at dramatic irony. Narrative drive is all about how much information the reader has in relation to the protagonist. It’s a way to get the reader asking questions so she’ll be compelled to turn the page to find out what happens next. There are three forms of narrative drive; mystery, suspense and dramatic irony.

Mystery is when the protagonist has more information than the reader.

Suspense is when the protagonist and the reader have the same amount of information.

Dramatic Irony is when the reader has more information than the protagonist.

If you’ve missed any of the articles or podcasts I’ve done on narrative drive, you can check them out here:

What is Narrative Drive?

Analysis of Get Out (Roundtable podcast)


Writing a Page-Turner Part 1

Analysis of Murder on the Orient Express (Roundtable podcast)


Writing a Page-Turner Part 2

Analysis of Rear Window (Roundtable podcast)

Dramatic Irony

Analysis of The Queen (Roundtable podcast)

In my opinion, dramatic irony is the hardest to pull off. True, it works wonders as an accent for stories that are primarily suspense or mystery and there are multiple examples in the resources above to illustrate that. But when it’s the main form of narrative drive, it’s a whole new ball game. If the audience knows more than the protagonist (in some cases they even know how the story ends), how on earth does a writer keep them engaged and turning pages?

The trick is to create a protagonist the reader can empathize with, and then use what the audience knows to create tension. They’ll experience that tension as dread, or anticipation, or fear or any one of a dozen other feelings. The key is to use the information to heighten their emotional involvement in the story.

To do that, you need to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of storytelling because narrative drive doesn’t exist in a silo. It plays off every other element of story so you’ve got to understand how the tools in your writer’s toolbox work. Suspense and mystery are used quite often and to great effect. Dramatic irony though, that’s the big gun. It’s one of those things that will either breathe life into your novel, or kill it instantly. It takes no prisoners. Either it works or it doesn’t.

In the beginning hook of Dracula, Bram Stoker reveals everything. The reader knows that the Count is a vampire and is heading to England which means that for most of the middle build we’re in a position of dramatic irony. In order to make this work and to create a feeling of tension and dread, Stoker would have needed to raise the stakes even higher than they were in the beginning hook.

If you’ve not read Dracula, the beginning hook is the part of the story that most people are familiar with. It’s the bit that happens at the Count’s castle in Transylvania. It’s wonderfully conceived and contains some truly hair-raising scenes. In the middle build then, Stoker needed to keep escalating the stakes and, given that he’d created a dramatic irony situation for himself, he also needed to create a protagonist his reader could relate to and care about.

Unfortunately, he didn’t quite pull it off.

Let’s deal with the issue of the protagonist first. In the beginning hook, we’re introduced to Jonathan Harker. He’s our protagonist and we can easily empathize with him and what he’s going through. However, he’s off stage for most of the middle build. Since the hero, victim, villain and other hero’s journey archetypes are roles and not characters, there’s nothing wrong with characters moving in and out of them. So technically speaking, it’s not a problem for Van Helsing to step into the hero’s (or protagonist’s) role in the middle build.

The problem is that Van Helsing is a character we can’t empathize with. He’s a parachute character who gets dropped into the story partway through act two. (The first four chapters of the middle build have no hero at all and the first three don’t have a villain either). He’s really the mentor who backfills the hero’s role because there’s nobody else to do it. We know very little about him but most of all, he has nothing at stake in the battle to defeat the King of Vampires. He’s the only major character without anything to lose.

What do the other major character have to lose?

  • Jonathan Harker: his sanity, his life and his wife’s life
  • Mina Harker: her soul
  • Lucy Westenra: her life and her soul
  • Mrs. Westenra: her life, her daughter’s life and soul
  • Arthur Holmwood: his fiance’s life and soul, his happiness, his future plans
  • John Seaward: the life and soul of the woman he loves
  • Quincey Morris: the life and soul of the woman he loves
  • Reinfield: his life

Van Helsing has nothing. The struggle against Dracula is more a battle of the wits for him, and he spends a great deal of time talking about his man-brain and the Count’s child-brain. Sure, he’s sad that Lucy has died (although right after her death he makes a joke about her having married four men at once) and he seems genuinely interested in saving Mina (although he does opt to leave her to fend for herself against the wolves when he goes to destroy the three female vampires at the castle), and he does seem to feel Holmwood’s loss when Lucy dies (although he does promptly blurt out a request to cut off her head and drive a wooden stake through her heart).

In the end, if Dracula should win, Van Helsing will go back home having lost the battle. While others’ lives would be destroyed, his physical and mental health would remain largely unchanged. That’s hard to empathize with.

What’s more, Stoker chose to water down his villain in the middle build and ending payoff. Knowing that there is a very powerful predator roaming around England should fill readers hearts with terror. Instead, Stoker (presumably to give the vampire hunters a fighting chance) chose to tell his audience that the monster they meet in act one really isn’t as smart or powerful as they thought he was. Dracula appears as mist, a bat and a dog. When he’s in human form, he cowers from the vampire hunters, hiding in the shadows and running away. Reader don’t get a good view of him in his full frightening form until the end of act two. While that is one heck of a scene, one scene (no matter how good it is) can’t possibly carry a whole act. 

So what does dramatic irony look like when it’s working? Take a look a these examples (SPOILERS AHEAD!):

Breaking Bad

Screenwriter Vince Gilligan chose to start his Breaking Bad series using dramatic irony, and he continued to use it here and there throughout the series. In the hands of a master storyteller, dramatic irony is magical.

Pilot Teaser

In the opening to the pilot episode (this is a partial clip), Gilligan starts with the ending and then gives us the rest of the episode in flashback. Talk about a gutsy move. It worked though because right after the teaser, we’re introduced to Walter White as a high school chemistry teacher. This is a very different guy than the one we saw seconds prior. Immediately all kinds of questions pop into our minds. Who is the guy? How does a teacher, who works part time at a car wash and who seems to be a pretty dull person, end up cooking meth in a Winnebago in the middle of the dessert? Why would he do it in the first place?

Vince Gilligan also immediately sets Walter up as an empathetic character. In the first episode we learn that he’s desperate. He’s been diagnosed with lung cancer, he has a son with significant medical bills, his wife is about to have a baby and he has no money for them after his death. Walter White, while a bit of a loser, is essentially a good man. He’s been dealt a raw deal and all he wants—his external object of desire—is to provide for his family. We can all relate to that.

As the series progresses of course, Walter’s sub-conscious need emerges along with his alter ego, Heisenberg. The stakes get higher and higher until the final season when Gilligan sets up another powerful moment of dramatic irony.

Hank Finds Out

When Hank discovers that Walter is the drug lord he’s been hunting down since season one, the audience’s anxiety level goes into high gear. We know more than our protagonist (Walter White). Again, dozens of questions fly through our minds. How will Hank react to this? Will he arrest Walter right away? Will he arrest Walter at all? What will Skylar and Marie do? How will this impact Walt Jr. and Holly?

There’s so much on the line here, it’s nuts.

The Queen

Their Grief:

As a historical drama, The Queen operates with dramatic irony as its primary source of narrative drive. The events surrounding Princess Diana’s death are still fresh in viewers’ minds. So, we’re not wondering what’s going to happen, we’re wondering how it happened.

Empathy is essential here, so the storytellers took great pains to develop it. Throughout the film we see why the Queen acted the way she did. For example, since the Spencers requested a family funeral and Diana was not technically a royal, she respected their wishes. Who could fault her for that?

In this scene, Helen Mirren suggested that her character straighten the pens and clean her glasses on her sweater. She specifically requested the close up shot of her hands. Why?

Mirren understood that movie goers would have trouble empathizing with a monarch. Queen Elizabeth lives a very different life from us. There is no way she’d really clean her glasses on a sweater, but that’s what we do so we understand it. It was a way of visually expressing the idea that, external trappings aside, this was a woman like any other woman. The straightening of the pens was to demonstrate Elizabeth’s desperate attempt to bring a little order into a chaotic situation.

The King’s Speech

Duke of York, Wembley Stadium

In The King’s Speech, writer David Seidler had an added challenge when creating empathy; he was dealing with a protagonist from another era. It’s hard for modern audiences to truly appreciate what life was like for Bertie, or how enormous his struggles were. King George VI was not only from a different social class, but he was from a different time with different attitudes. Therefore, empathy begins in the very first scene.

The protagonist is not yet the monarch. He’s the younger brother of the charismatic future king. He’s a man with a speech impediment and fear of public speaking who’s been forced to stand in front of a crowd to deliver an address. Every stutter, every hesitation, magnified and recorded for posterity.

To Be or Not To Be

As if the requirement for a public life was not enough to generate empathy for Bertie, Seidler chose to give the audience a glimpse into what made this man the way he is. There’s a heart-wrenching scene in which Bertie tells Logue about his childhood; his father ignored him, his brother teased him and his nanny abused him.

Here, Bertie listens to a recording he made during a therapy session and is overcome with emotion. His reaction is as far removed from kingly behaviour as it’s possible to be. Gone is the stiff upper lip and instead, he’s just a man.

A Need-To-Know Basis

The key takeaway from my study of narrative drive is this: readers are on a need-to-know basis.

Narrative drive is the tool that enables you to control how much information you reveal, and when, so that you can draw your readers into a story and keep them riveted to the very end. Tell your audience only the essentials and make them ask questions about the rest.

For even more information on the craft of storytelling, and to download a PDF of this article, subscribe to Valerie’s Inner Circle.

About the author 

Valerie Francis

Valerie Francis is a bestselling author, literary editor, and podcaster with a passion for stories by, for and about women.

Each month, Valerie recommends books from literature’s best female authors. Selections come from every genre because women write, and read, in every genre. The Women’s Fiction category offers up some terrific novels, but these days there’s a strong female presence in thriller, horror, crime, and other genres traditionally dominated by male writers. No matter what the publishing companies may think, in the 21st Century, Women’s Fiction is whatever we want it to be.

stories for women, by women, and about women