Irony

I’ve spent three days in the company of brilliant writers and I am humbled and inspired, and educated all at the same time.  The past few days I was in Portales New Mexico, site of the Williamson Lectureship.  The Lectureship was founded by Jack Williamson, Grand Master of science fiction, and man who sold his first story, The Metal Man, in 1928, and his last novel, The Stonhenge Gate, was published in 2005.  Other little facts about Jack;  he added words to the English language by inventing them and using them in his fiction — terraforming, genetic engineering, humanoid, psionics, — and I’m probably forgetting a few.  For those of us who knew him he was also the kindest, wisest, most modest, and most gracious man I’ve ever known.  Anyway, he took to inviting famous science fiction writers down to Eastern New Mexico University to speak on a variety of topics.  In total 7 grand masters of science fiction have shared their knowledge with students and colleagues at ENMU over some 37 years.

This year was no exception.  Grand Master Joe Haldeman was the Guest of Honor with Grand Master Connie Willis doing her usual perfect job as the Mistress of Ceremonies.  Also present were Steve Gould, author of Jumper, and Reflex and Impulse to name just a few of his books.  Ian Tregillis author of the Milkweed Triptych, Ed Bryant.  And me.  I was there soaking it all up.  I was also trying to work on the final big scene of the Wild Card movie.  A scene in which I new what had to happen, but I hated how it was going to happen.  As always happens when you gather a lot of writers in the same place we talk about writing.  Connie who is a huge Primeval fan and got me hooked on the series talked about how the show always avoided being sentimental or too earnest by using irony.  She mentioned specific scenes and I knew exactly what she meant, and in that moment I knew how to write this scene.  I had to use irony.

So I’m burbling about this to a friend on Facebook, a very talented, aspiring writer name Eric Kelley, and one of his responses implied that he wasn’t quite sure in what context I was using irony.  That’s when I realized that I needed a definition of how it’s used in writing rather than an amorphous, well I know it when I see it/use it definition.  so, at breakfast this morning at Mark’s Grill I asked Connie what does irony mean?

She said she had struggled with it, and it was a professor at Greeley who gave her the best definition.  This is how I condensed what he said.  “Irony is the gap between expectation and the actual resolution.”  In other words — it’s when expectation does not match the resolution.  There are also other ways to inject irony.  When the tone doesn’t match the words.  That probably works better in a screenplay then a novel, but it can be pulled off with the right dialogue tags.  Going back to Primeval.  There is a scene where Cutter has managed to escape from the distant past when it was feared he had been lost forever.  He and this woman are starting to fall in love, but are resisting it both in their own minds and in how they deal with each other.  And in the moment Cutter says something like “Did you miss me?”  And she replies in this rather snarky way “Devastated,” and they go their separate ways, but in that moment the audience realizes that they have just told each other how they actually feel.  But it doesn’t come across like soap opera.  Irony strikes again and saves the moment.

So thought I’m physically tired from teaching and being on panels and laughing and talking with fellow writers, and driving hundreds of miles I have returned from this time far more informed and inspired to do better, to improve my writing in some small measure by the help and example of these other professionals.

3 Responses to Irony

  • Darlene M. Stapp says:

    In my younger years I was inspired by authors/writers of the past and present. Had a wonderful grade school teacher, Mrs. Greene who encouraged reading as many as books as possible by little known authors – I remember The Diary of Anne Frank, The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten-Boom, and on the fiction side – now almost fact – Orwell’s 1984. Now, I’m reaching out for inspiration from today’s authors such as you. I read your post and see the strength of purpose that created your talent. Keep it coming, Melinda I see you reaching your goals and believe me you have already made your place in the ranks of superb writers. I write, but my humble scratching is just a pleasant escape to the wonderland of imagination – I can only dream of being in the same class as you are – so I just admire your abilities and am reading as many of your works as I can. Thanks for being the writer you are; I mean it.

  • I puzzled over “irony” for a long time; it’s kind of an elusive concept. The definition that finally made sense to me was “irony is a figure of speech in which a thing is represented by its negation.” That actually seems to fit your example: the woman is telling Cutter that she loves him by denying that she feels anything for him—but, of course, the denial itself takes the form of an affirmation that she loves him, but delivered in a tone that undercuts it. So we have an affirmation that is delivered in a sarcastic tone that makes it a denial that in turn is understood by the audience to be an affirmation. Does that sound right?

    That sort of thing only works for an audience that is so used to snark that it doesn’t expect anyone to avow sentiment openly, of course. A Victorian audience, hearing the same exchange, might conceivably think the dialogue perfectly natural and be puzzled by the tone of voice.

    I’m not sure if that’s a helpful definition from a writing PoV, though.

    Tangentially, it occurs to me that that same model applies to an entirely different sort of communication: flirtation. As I understand it, a widespread mammalian flirtation behavior is for the female to look at the male, but not directly, and then look away—that is, to show interest and then deny interest, so that there’s ambiguity. I’m not sure what the parameters are for how flirtation and irony are differently—especially in a case like this where both seem to be happening.

    It sounds like it must have been a splendid conversation.

  • Darlene M. Stapp says:

    Hey there, lady. Some time ago you mentioned your encounter with a “dating/meet a nice person” business and I didn’t know if your interest was personal or research for a manuscript. I remember posting that you didn’t need to employe that method of meeting someone. Well, on with it. I happened catch Dr. Phil’s Explosive Relationships presentation Thursday and one segment dealt with a woman who with to Match.com corresponded with the guy for two weeks and then they met – dinner etc., and a short time after she became uneasy about the relationship. Nonetheless, if you were in the research mode, that segment may be something you may want to see and if your interest was personal – it’s something you must see. Hope everything is going well with you and yours. De.

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