Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Since O. Henry (and before), writers have surprised readers by ending stories with surprises, or twists. Twisting one’s tale often results from the use of irony--dramatic, verbal, or situational. However, irony can also be used to create humor, to sensationalize moments or incidents, and to generate and heighten suspense.
Narrative suspense results from dramatic irony. In dramatic irony, the reader knows more than one or more of the characters involved in a scene. For example, the monster might wait in ambush, at the intersection of tunnels just ahead; the reader knows this, but the character or characters traveling through the tunnel do not.
Verbal irony is often used in humor. The narrator or a character in the story says the opposite of what he or she means. Example: Seeing a dark sky, feeling a heaviness in the air, and seeing and feeling the effects of rising winds, a character might say, “What mild weather we’re having today!” In horror fiction, verbal irony can sensationalize; for example, a character might say, “Vampires aren’t nearly as scary as I thought they’d be--they’re way more terrifying!” Verbal irony, as it is used, for example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, can also foreshadow future incidents or situations.
Suspense often relies upon situational irony, which occurs when one situation causes readers to expect a particular outcome, but a later situation either resolves the earlier one in an unexpected way or takes the plot in a new, unanticipated direction. Example: A scientist may be confident that he has the technological means by which to neutralize or destroy a monster, but, when he tries to do so, the technology either has no effect or an unintended effect that actually makes matters worse.
Which type of irony is used in each of these scenes?
1. Montressor wishes Fortunato a long life as Montressor leads Fortunato to his death, and, when Fortunato assures Montressor, “I will not die of a cough,” Montressor [who kills his victim by sealing Fortunato inside a wall] agrees, replying, “True--true.”)
Answer: Verbal (It happens in in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”)
2. Revenants suspected of being zombies turn out to be lobotomized.
Answer: Situational (It happens in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Cemetery Dance.)
3. Kendra thinks Buffy Summers is a vampire because Kendra sees Buffy kissing a vampire (Angel); Kendra doesn’t know that Buffy is a fellow vampire slayer who has fallen in love with Angel, whose soul was restored to him in a Gypsy curse.
Answer: Dramatic (It happens in an episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)