Creating depth in our writing is an involved process, one we get better at as time goes on. “Depth” consists of a multitude of layers we add to a scene, usually as part of the revision process.
Two important layers of depth are dramatic irony and wry humor. They are fraternal twins who play well together. When done well, both add an element of the unexpected into the mix.
One of my favorite characters to write is the archetype known as “the trickster.” This wise friend can sometimes work against you, but their presence can add an essential layer of sardonic humor to the narrative.
Tricksters cross boundaries. They break rules and disrupt everyday life, but we love them for their wit and charisma. They are the wise-cracking rogue who lends a touch of fallible humanity to the cast that can be otherwise too perfect. Their interactions with the hero provide moments of both hilarity and grief.
The trickster often employs a literary device called dramatic irony. Their sarcasm adds a moment of “ah-hah!” to a scene. The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
One of my favorite examples of where an author made good use of both dramatic irony and ironic wit is the play, Romeo and Juliet. The way William Shakespeare wrote the play, we see layer after layer of both irony and wit applied heavily.
First, the prologue announces that the Capulets are at war with the Montagues and tells us that what happens to the star-crossed lovers at the end will bring about peace between the warring families.
That the audience is aware of the situation from the outset, but the characters aren’t, is one layer of irony. That “we know, but you don’t” factor might not fly today with modern audiences, but Elizabethans loved it. Their daily lives were fraught with danger, so knowing what lay around the corner was good.
The next layer resonates with modern audiences. The second layer of irony is applied when Romeo falls in love with his nemesis—the daughter of his family’s arch-enemy.
Again, the audience sees the irony there, but (third layer) Romeo pushes onward, trying to convince Juliet that her family won’t harm him, that her love will protect him.
Alas, the ironic blindness of teenaged infatuation.
Nevertheless, at this point, despite the blatant warning that the prologue gives us at the outset, we are all hoping for a happy ending, even though we’ve had 400 years of “we know this will end badly.”
Mercutio and Benvolio discuss Romeo’s love-stricken behavior, as friends usually do. They assume he is still pining for Rosalind (fourth layer of irony). The audience says, “We know something you don’t.”
Alas poor Romeo! he is already dead;
stabbed with a white wench’s black eye;
shot through the ear with a love-song; 
“Shot through the ear with a love-song” is brilliant, ironic humor in any era and is one of my all-time favorite turns of phrase.
All through the play, from Tybalt’s murder to the suicides, the audience knows what is going on, but the characters don’t. That is dramatic irony taken to an extreme and contributed to the play’s success back in 1594-1595 when it first opened.
I know that tastes have changed over the 400-plus years since that play was written. We don’t want to be as blatant as William Shakespeare, but readers still like us to inject dramatic irony into our work as foreshadowing.
Imagine a movie involving a neighborhood planning committee’s meeting about what to do with a plot of land. Should they let it be developed commercially or make it a playground? In itself, the topic would make a dull movie.
Dramatic irony is introduced in the opening scene when an ordinary-looking woman enters the empty conference room ahead of the meeting, wearing gloves. She kneels and places a backpack under the table, makes an adjustment to its contents, sets the timer to 14:25 (2:25 pm), and then exits the room.
With just that one scene taking less than two minutes, the audience’s nerves are on edge. Every second that the mindless bickering over technicalities and political correctness drags on ratchets up the tension.
A committee member gets up to get a glass of water. Another member steps out to make a phone call. Someone else gets agitated, pacing back and forth as they press their opinions.
With each of the committee members’ mundane movements, one leaving the table and another returning, the clock on the wall ticks toward 2:25.
You wonder, “Will this person be the one to escape the massacre?”
Dramatic irony as foreshadowing is the backpack lurking under the table.
Modern science fiction made good use of both dramatic irony and the trickster. In the 20th century science fiction novel, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury used irony to convey information.
Bradbury introduced “firemen,” not as those brave people who put out house fires. Instead, they are charged with starting fires and burning all books.
The naming of that job title was subtle, as Bradbury never resorted to explaining the irony. Even today, it packs a punch when you first read it.
Ray Bradbury employed “situational irony” to give his readers the information they needed. This was handled in a way that impacted the reader and promised more to come.
We can also use ironic humor to convey information the reader needs. Both the trickster as an archetypal character and the inclusion of dramatic irony adds depth to a story. The reader understands what is being conveyed but hasn’t been told what to think.
Readers like to think for themselves.
The Machine that Won the War, a short story by Isaac Asimov, is one long scene filled with dramatic irony that becomes humorous as the story progresses.
That story might be hard to find, but it first appeared in the October 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was reprinted in the collections Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) and Robot Dreams (1986).
We will take a closer look at the role of the trickster in our next post.
Credits and Attributions:
 Quote from Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1594 – 1595 PD|100.
Romeo and Juliet, by Ford Madox Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Romeo and juliet brown.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Romeo_and_juliet_brown.jpg&oldid=531347482 (accessed March 8, 2021).
Cover of Nightfall and other Stories by Isaac Asimov, © 1969 Doubleday, cover art by Amelia S. Edwards. Fair Use. Wikipedia contributors, “Nightfall and Other Stories,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nightfall_and_Other_Stories&oldid=885885790 (accessed March 8, 2021).