Last time I wrote about story secrets. Generally these are the secrets left to the readers to unravel. Most mysteries are of this sort, with Columbo as a major exception.
For those who have missed Peter Falk’s finest moments (other than The Princess Bride), Columbo episodes always began with the criminal committing the murder in front of the audience. Each murder was carefully designed to make the murderer (usually someone who was clever, respected, and upper class – a one percent villain) seems unassailable. The audience was not in suspense as to who-done-it, only as to how Columbo would trip them up. These were ironic mysteries in that most of the people in the story did not know who the guilty party was. Only the murderer and Columbo knew that.
Careful viewers, however, might have another level of irony. They might see the mistake that the murderer made, something he or she was unaware of. The error was the secret hidden from the murderer, but obvious to a portion of the audience.
Irony is at work in other genres. As mentioned in the last post, Hitchcock was fond of creating suspense by showing a danger that the protagonist was unaware of. In horror films, the audience often sees the monster prowling or in wait for a hapless victim. (Don’t open that door!)
In romantic comedies, we know one of the lovers has a secret while the other lover is in the dark. In some ways, irony is a close cousin of gossip. We get exclusive knowledge reflects our superiority. In fact, comedy usually requires that the audience be in a superior position, effectively looking down at the poor, clueless hero.
Perhaps the most joyful use of irony is the audience’s understanding that the hero has an unappreciated or unrecognized strength. One reason why this resonates is because for many of us, it took someone outside our families to point out that we had an important dimension, whether it was a teaching encouraging us to take up a profession or a lover appreciating our sex appeal. This can be life-changing, and it’s fun to relive it in fiction.
Whether someone gets caught, finds love, or changes direction, there are a few essentials for ironic secrets:
· The audience cannot be informed in a way that is overly subtle. It is okay for people to feel smart because they caught on to the secret. But the more people who miss being brought in on the secret entirely, the less successful the work is.
· There must be a reason for the secret. Ignorance. Social pressure. Confusion. In Some Like It Hot, the musicians keep their secrets to avoid being murdered.
· There must be frustrated opportunities for the secret to be revealed.
· The consequences of the secret staying secret must rise as the story progresses. It should become unbearable and lead to thoughts of, “Oh why didn’t I just tell the truth to begin with.”
· The revelation or unmasking must be dramatic and risky. If it’s not a big moment, why bother. If things eke out bit by bit, the impact will be lost. We want burst balloons, not slow leaks.
· There must be a sense of relief in the revelation. At last the truth can be told and the truth will set you free.
· The revelation must create a power shift. In some older romantic comedies, there was a dramatic loss of power by the heroine. Nowadays, power tends to shift in either direction. But is also possible to make it a win-win.
It is possible to have stories that include both story secrets and ironic secrets. Mission Impossible did this in every episode (quite well in most cases). But the writer must consciously choose one or the other or both and execute either or both according to the specific needs without muddying the audience experience. The goal isn't to confuse. It's to thrill and delight.