BY NICO VREELAND
A mystery writer using dramatic irony to create suspense is a bit like an exterminator using napalm because somebody saw a cockroach: it works, but it’s far from the best tool for the job. Dramatic irony is especially detrimental to mystery novels, but I hate it in almost all types of fiction.
I don’t even like Jeffrey Eugenides, a talented literary author, because he’s the modern king of dramatic irony. He’s so eager to give away the plots of his novels—and the fates of his characters—that sometimes he does it in his titles, like The Virgin Suicides. I hate knowing more than the characters do about their future because it robs their decisions of risk and it makes them feel doomed, trudging unknowingly through the actions that will eventually make, say, the virgins kill themselves.
In mysteries, dramatic irony is often executed in more gimmicky, less careful ways. In a movie, it might be a panning shot that reveals, unbeknownst to the hero, an ominous goon watching him. In a book, it might be a chapter-closing zinger like, “Little did he know, he would never see his wife alive again.”
For one thing, this is a cheap way to ratchet up the suspense. More importantly, dramatic irony warps the reading experience: it tips the balance of knowledge, and creates an emotional gulf between the hero and the reader. In a mystery, that is something I never want. I want to experience everything as the character does, and that includes epiphanies, solutions to cases, and all the suspense along the way. Continue reading