What Your Characters Don’t Know...Could Kill Them
Using Dramatic Irony to Build Tension in a Novel
Jen Waite’s debut novel, Survival Instincts, is my go-to example of how an author can use dramatic irony to build suspense for the reader. Dramatic irony is nerdspeak for when the reader knows something the character doesn’t. I emailed Jen and asked if she’d write a piece about this device that belongs in every suspense writer’s toolkit.
Here’s Jen on holding out on the characters but not the audience:
“It’s so lovely to see you,” I say, giving Stacy a hug and quick kiss on the cheek. “How was the break?”
“A bit crazy, to be honest. Traveling alone with my little hellions can be…interesting,” Stacy laughs as her eyes dart to the top of the slide where her youngest is perched in a squat, leaning precariously forward. “Christ,” she mutters. “I’ll be back in a second.”
I watch Stacy trot to the slide and bellow at little Will to be careful. My eyes move to the bottom of the slide where my 5-year-old Ariel has begun to wriggle her way up the slippery plastic tunnel. I should call to her to get out of the way—yell sweetly, for the benefit of the other parents, that slides are for sliding down, not climbing up—but instead I walk over to the bench and sit down. I pull out my phone, pretending that I don’t see Ariel, now determinedly half-way up the slide, and focus on the screen.
I just wrote the above scene about two friends who run into each other at the neighborhood playground after spring break. For the purpose of this example, let’s say this scene is from a novel with two main characters, Stacy and this narrator, who speak in alternating points of view.
Now, read the scene again but let’s add a couple of sentences to the end.
‘Guess where I am?’ I tap out, keeping my face neutral. I wait as the dots of a reply turn into words on my screen:
On your way over, I hope.
‘Vanderbilt Playground,’ I write back, ‘With your wife.’
Next the reader goes into Stacy’s point of view knowing a vital piece of information about Stacy’s marriage that Stacy does not—this is an example of dramatic irony and how an author can use it to their advantage. The audience/reader might conjecture that the narrator and Stacy’s husband are having an affair (though they might be wrong!). Even if the assumption is wrong, and assuming this, while Stacy is in the dark about her friend’s relationship with her husband, adds a layer of drama and tension to the plot:
What is the nature of the narrator’s relationship with the husband?
How long has it been going on?
Are they in love or just lust?
When will Stacy find out? Will she ever find out? How—will she catch them in the act?
What could this mean for the friendship between the two women?
All of these questions may surface in the reader’s mind just from that little tidbit added to the end of an otherwise innocuous scene.
Now let’s go back to this faux-novel for a minute. To raise the stakes even further, in the next scene, perhaps Stacy goes home to her husband, they have a lovely family dinner together and Stacy tucks her kids into bed. As she’s leaving the room, Will whispers something.
“What was that, honey?” I smile into the dark. Will can be a handful, but his pure sweetness, especially during bedtime routine, calms my frazzled nerves.
“I don’t want to play with Ariel any more,” he says, his voice louder. “She hurts me.”
This revelation Stacey knows, but the other narrator does not.
Now we go back and forth between the narrators, building the tension scene by scene, until, at some point near the end of the book, there will be an implosion as all of the differing realities crash into each other and everything is brought to light. In theory, the writer can build and weave these revelations throughout the novel, scene by scene, so that even though the reader knows more than the narrators at any given time, there is still a big reveal that no one (except for the author) sees coming.
I came up with the above scenes quickly in order to give a scene-by-scene example of how one might use dramatic irony to build suspense in a thriller. I used this technique more fully in my debut novel, SURVIVAL INSTINCTS, by pitting the heroines (a grandmother, a mother and a daughter) against a man who kidnaps them on a walking trail in the White Mountains. The reader is privy to the point of view of the man as he stalks the women from their hometown to their vacation airbnb and out onto their remote hike. There is a sense of dread that permeates the beginning of the novel, as the reader sees our heroines enjoying an idyllic “girls’ getaway” all the while switching back to the point of view of this stranger (or is he a stranger to them?) who is dangerously obsessed with them.
Letting the reader in on details that the characters aren’t aware of creates a feelings of excitement, dread, and expectation that keeps the reader turning page after page.
So remember, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” is never true in suspense novels…and what your characters don’t know just might kill them (or rocket your novel to the top of all the bestseller lists!).
Thank you, Jen, and the next time we hang out I’m definitely taking a peek at your phone to make sure you’re not texting my husband…
Jen’s drafting examples above show how you can inject suspense into an otherwise innocuous scene (and no one wants one of those in a thriller!). Well shown. Reminds me of an old Alfred Hitchcock interview…you know I went on YouTube and found it. Five minutes of dread > twenty seconds of shock. Dramatic irony!!!!!
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PS in suspense we aren’t always ahead of *all* the characters, but it certainly is fun to see something menacing unfolding while a naive character stands by, unwitting, as in the examples shown in this post.
I can’t wait to read Jen’s books, and I loved thinking about dramatic irony (and whether I underuse it) after reading this post.
It occurs to me that one reason I usually prefer suspense as a genre, over traditional mystery, is that in the former, readers are often ahead of characters (dramatic irony!=lots of tension!) whereas in the latter, characters are often ahead of readers and the readers are supposed to catch up (more intellectually stimulating, but perhaps less emotionally involving?). In some mysteries, an investigator character has it alllll figured out well in advance (hello there, Hercule Poirot), and that can be a bit dull. I wonder if Jen would have any thoughts on these genre distinctions? Admittedly, few great books fit into one genre box neatly.