Irony: 9 ways to develop irony for compelling stories

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Mannequin Pis, Brussels
It might be the worst time and place to do what you gotta do, but that’s what makes it interesting. And ironic.

One of the key points in Blake Snyder’s guide to writing is that a compelling storyline has something ironic about it. CS Lakin says the same thing – she demands that a story has a kicker, an ironic aspect that turns an interesting idea into a must-read one. But how do you develop situations full of irony? Here are some starting points.

  1. Play a  game called World’s Worst. Use an online job-generator and then think of the worst possible person for that job. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gruff cop having to care for tiny children in Kindergarten Cop. Or a teenage girl obliged to slay vampires…
  2. Imagine a phobia that would prevent your hero from solving your story’s problem. Use caution and respect though. Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes adds drama to an already terrifying situation in Raiders, but the audience is not invited to mock his fear.
  3. What is your character’s greatest dislike? Put them in a situation which involves it. Maybe she has a deep dislike of society events, but is obliged to host a charity fundraiser. Or maybe he hates wealthy people but inherits a fortune.
  4. Channel your inner Alanis Morrisette. Remember, though, that rain on your wedding day is only ironic if the wedding is outdoors in a desert which hasn’t had precipitation for twenty years.
  5. Think up the worst possible place and time for your story. When would it be worst to win the lottery? Where would be the worst place to fight the bad guy? -Probably on a narrow bridge over a yawning abyss, right after you learn that he’s your father.
  6. Get your but in gear. ‘I love you but you’re undead/my sworn enemy/a werewolf/ in another dimension.’ I think Joss Whedon checked all these boxes with  Buffy and Angel.
  7. One last job/graduation/retirement day – lots of opportunities here for the wrong people to get involved in the action. Think of all those cops who have to fight crime right before collecting their carriage clock, or the criminal about to go straight but blackmailed into one more theft. Clarice Starling was totally green when she had to work alongside Hannibal Lecter, and this gave her character a horrifying vulnerability which Lecter tried to prey on.
  8. Mistaken identity can land the wrong person nicely in the middle of things. The Doctor has no medical qualifications but goes to help regardless because he can’t resist a challenge. Or what about North by Northwest?
  9. Lies. This is linked to mistaken identity, except on purpose. Think Mr and Mrs Smith, or Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies.

I hope these give some starting points for stories containing the irony Snyder and Lakin recommend. Once I started looking, I was amazed at how bestselling books and movies focus on a character who is the least qualified person to tackle the problem presented in the story. My eyes have been opened! Let me know how you come up with kickers for your stories.

Resources:

Random job generator for contemporary occupations

Or try this one for fantasy jobs, from Seventh Sanctum. Actually I recommend Seventh Sanctum for anything- it’s been around for years and just keeps getting better!

You can also procrastinate for ages by googling World’s Worst… Be astounded at just how bad some places/things/people are.

PS: The statue in my picture is Mannequin Pis in Brussels, where I was last week. And yes, he is doing what the name suggests.

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Book blog: Save the Cat (and your logline)

Reading Time: 3 minutes
The cat's OK but can it save my story structure and give me a great logline?
The cat’s OK but can it save my story structure and give me a great logline?

If you struggle with story structure, theme, or bookending your work with definite character progression, then Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide, Save the Cat! is a must-read. I started this book last week and I’ve re-read parts of it so many times already, in particular his guidance on creating a killer story premise or logline. I’ve done Snyder’s writing exercises, and read out loud to friends the industry-insider anecdotes that Snyder scatters throughout his book.

This book addresses my primary story writing weaknesses: the logline (I’ve never had one) and story beats (I have them but they judder like a bad-news cardiogram). Since reading this book, I’ve been working on both, and found the writing growing stronger every time.

Snyder refuses to let you start your brilliant story until you can say, in a simple sentence or logline, what your story is. The logline forces you to examine the premise of your idea, and tests if it is strong enough to carry a whole story. His conviction that there must be something ironic about the logline, something that draws in the audience with its promise of trouble or fun, echoes CS Lakin’s advice that every good story must have a ‘concept with a kicker‘.

I found working on loglines incredibly helpful. Having to produce a logline strengthens every idea. Maybe you have this idea about a guy who wins a million pounds. OK, but what’s the irony – the kicker?  How about if the guy is the worst possible person to win because…  he’s got a week to live… he daren’t let his family get their hands on it…the love of his life hates wealth … he just became a monk … he’s just been put in jail -? A rich guy who got lucky isn’t enough of a story. The worst possible rich guy, a rich guy with an ironic reason why he can’t enjoy his new wealth…that could be the start of something.

Snyder uses the example of the movie Four Christmases to illustrate his insistence that your logline – and your title – must answer the audience’s question: what is it? In this case – it’s a couple who must endure four separate Christmases with their  double set of divorced parents. The irony? The couple are ready to commit to marriage and want out of their parents’ disastrous relationship history.

Snyder’s other piece of pure gold in  this book (among lots, lots more that is high value) is his beat sheet: fifteen points through which every successful story must pass. He demonstrate how every smash-hit movie fits this structure, whether it be Miss Congeniality or Elf. The three-act structure will be familiar if you’ve looked at work by James Scott Bell or KM Weiland – but has just 15 points, including the opening and closing images which define for your audience how the hero has changed.

For these 15 points, Snyder suggests a maximum of 40 scenes. He’s dealing with movies, but that’s a good number to go for in a novel too – you may end up with more, but 40 is nicely achievable. And only 15 points to hit, including start and end – that feels eminently doable!

This book is encouraging throughout and avoids the hectoring tone employed by some other story structure books. The examples are memorable and entertaining – the Pope in the Pool! – and their lessons are easy to learn. I know I will be watching for the hero’s ‘save the cat’ moment in the next film I see, and in every story. because if the hero doesn’t show humanity, even a tiny bit of it, then for Snyder, he ain’t the hero.

I recommend this book without reservation. The only downside is that now, as well as writing novels, I want to write a movie.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder


Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet has been adapted by various writing blogs, including this one  on Jami Gold’s website. You could also set up this structure in Scrivener, which would be great for shuffling around your scene ideas.

Scrivener's corkboard view is great for shuffling around scenes within your story structure.
Scrivener’s corkboard view is great for shuffling around scenes within your story structure.

 

 

 

 

 

The four essential elements of a logline are:

  • Irony – it must give an involving and dramatic situation.
  • Compelling mental picture – a whole movie, including its timeframe, must be implied.
  • Audience and cost – for novels, the target audience and tone.
  • Killer title – says what the story is, in a clever way.
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