What is suspense and how is it created?
Lee Goldberg once said that, "Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one." Either way, the reader asks: What's going to happen next?
In what follows I look at what suspense is and then, in the next chapter, turn to examine the preconditions for suspense. Namely:
a) A real danger to the hero.
b) The possibility that the hero will escape the danger.
c) A finite amount of time, sometimes called a ticking clock.
Dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.
There are many kinds of irony: verbal, dramatic and situational. Here, though, I'm only going to discuss dramatic irony.
Dramatic Irony And Suspense: An Example
Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deadly shadow soundlessly creeping up behind him, poised to suck the lifeforce from his bones.
Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path anticipating a threat just round the bend. He doesn't know whether there's a monster there, but there could be. Unlike before there's no deadly shadow stalking him ... at least, not that we know of.
The first scenario creates suspense, in part, by giving the reader/audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!
In the second scenario there is no such disparity of knowledge. We know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road.
Some Aspects of Dramatic Irony
a. Surface meaning vs underlying meaning
Dramatic irony occurs when the surface meaning of an utterance is at variance with its deeper meaning.
Meanings don't exist in a vacuum. It's people who understand utterances, it's people who understand meaning, whom things matter to.
Dramatic irony depends upon certain people knowing more than others. Some who hear the utterance will be stranded at the surface while others will understand the deeper meaning.
Let's look at the possibilities.
a.i. The audience knows less than one or more of the characters.
For instance, tension, suspense, can be generated when we see a character's reaction to, for example, the contents of a suitcase even though we never find out what it contained.
This example comes from Pulp Fiction. Vincent Vega looks into the suitcase, it's eery illumination playing over his face. For a moment he seems lost in whatever he sees. Stunned. Overwhelmed. The viewer doesn't know what's in the suitcase, but Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield do. Vega is looking right at it and, damn him, he's not telling!
a.ii. The audience knows more than one or more of the characters.
I think this is the far more common scenario. It happens on almost every show I watch, nearly every episode.
A character knows less about something than another character or the audience, and they don't know they know less.
For example, a couple of months ago I re-watched the scifi/horror classic Alien, a movie that has aged remarkably well. At one point one of the characters--Brett--searches for Jones the cat. Everyone on the ship is going back into stasis and that includes Jones, but Brett needs to catch him first. Yes, sure, the alien is on the loose too, but in this scene Brett isn't overly worried about meeting the alien since he knows Jones is in the area and, therefore, attributes any weird noises to the spooked feline.
Brett hears a noise, looks beneath nearby machinery, and spots the recalcitrant feline. Brett tries to coax the cat out of his hiding spot but, just as the cat walks toward him, we see a tentacle unfurl behind the man. Jones hisses and darts away. Brett is stunned. He thinks the cat hissed at him. Puzzled, he keeps calling Jones, trying to coax the cat out of hiding. While Brett does this we see the alien slowly, silently, unfurl behind Brett.
At this point in the movie, if you're anything like me, you gripped the cushion you had a strangle hold on and screamed: Turn around!
And, of course, Brett does but it's too late. He's monster chow.
This is the kind of thing we mean when we say that in dramatic irony "the implications of a situation, speech, etc, are understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play." In this scene both the cat and the alien had more information than Brett did and, as so often happens in horror movies, Brett paid for that inequality with his life.
b. Unwise behavior.
When a passage contains dramatic irony, the character from whom information is being kept usually reacts in a way that is inappropriate and unwise.
In the example from Alien, running away and hiding would have been both appropriate and wise. Standing in front of the alien calling out "kitty, kitty," ... not so much.
Summary: Irony occurs when there is an incongruity, or contrast, between what the expectations of a situation are and what is really the case.
(Note: This post is from one of the chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story.)