Oh, the irony

Today on a national broadcaster, I saw a presenter asking about irony vs. coincidence. The occasion was that New Zealand held the world’s first national earthquake drill, just minutes after a (small) real earthquake hit just off the coast. Was that a coincidence, or was it ironic?

While irony is a rich concept (with dramatic, situational and verbal as the main types), a key part of it is something that happens that is contrary to expectation, or there is a difference between how things appear and how they are. The broadcaster was getting at the apparent relationship between the earthquake drill and the earthquake event, thinking this was an example of cosmic irony, where it seems that the gods are toying with us mere mortals. However, given that earthquake drills are held with the expectation of earthquakes, there is nothing ironic about their coinciding; it is merely coincidence. It would have been ironic if the drill were held and no earthquake ever happened again; it would have been particularly ironic if the earthquake drill caused a flux in the universe that prevented earthquakes.

In verbal irony, what is actually said is opposite in meaning to what is meant, although the true meaning may be conveyed in tone. For example, when asked whether she enjoyed the roller coaster and the woman says in a shaking voice, ‘It was great fun,’ we have an example of verbal irony. These kinds of example cross over with sarcasm, although there must be an element of ridicule in sarcasm: ‘Yes, I’m FINE, thank you!’ says the woman, after she has had to sit down, to her inquiring friend. The difference here is that in the first example, the woman did not intend to criticise her friend, but it is clear that there is a disparity between what she says and what she is feeling; in the second example she is still clearly not fine, but she intends to punish the stupid question with sarcasm that points out the disparity.

Dramatic irony is the interesting one from a writer’s point of view, because you have a mechanism that exploits the two audiences of the message: the reader, and the characters. In the play Oedipus Rex, the audience knows that Oedipus himself is the murderer he is searching for. In The Truman Show, the audience knows that Truman is on television, but he does not.

There could be irony in news presenters needing to ask the difference between irony and coincidence; are they not people whose job is to tell, not ask? Are they not trained in the dramatic arts? However, this is possibly expecting too much of news presenters, and will almost certainly lead to me being hoist by my own petard, which IS ironic indeed.

Just the right word …

Finding the right word is like finding a bargain – you are fishing through an assortment of possibilities that have some of the right qualities, but not all of them. Suddenly, one option seems to stand out: it is the right size. It is the right colour. And best of all, it is better than the right price!

When it’s the right word, you get a lot for your money. The reader comes away with a sense of coherence of your argument, or perhaps pleasure at an image you’ve conveyed. They may not remember how you did this, but they will remember that you did it.

One example of this in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. In Chapter One, Gaiman is describing the town of Wall:

There is one road from Wall, a winding track rising sharply up from the forest, where it is lined with rocks and small stones. Followed far enough south, out of the forest, the track becomes a real road, paved with asphalt; followed further the road gets larger, is packed at all hours with cars and lorries rushing from city to city. Eventually the road takes you to London, but London is a whole night’s drive from Wall.

This description of a small town captures very well its distance from an urban centre and from industry, the gradual shift from slow, winding, forested land to the fast, straight lines of highways and busyness. But in that last phrase there is an added element of magic that wasn’t there at the beginning. Who describes a journey as taking the time of ‘a night’? With that one word, the darkness of the forest stays with me longer, the perils of night-time travel are foregrounded and Wall seems otherworldly compared with my imagined early morning (give thanks, for the sun has risen!) arrival in the safety of London.

Words form semantic sets, and with each word you choose, you are not choosing the rest that might have gone in that slot. Each word brings with it a range of connotations that add to the development of your story. So imagine that sentence with these alternatives:

  • London is a whole hour’s drive from Wall (no good, not far enough)
  • London is a whole day’s drive from Wall (ok, so it takes a while, but it’s just toil, and there’s sunshine. What magic happens in broad daylight?)
  • London is a whole week’s drive from Wall (trudge, trudge; no magic)

The choice of ‘night’ sets up the whole story. If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it. You’ll feel the magic too.