How I've envied artists over the years! Unlike fiction, paintings and drawings can be viewed (and judged) in an instant. Of course, I know that to gain a full understanding of great art, one must spend time studying it; however, no one can walk away in the middle of a painting. Even a cursory glance allows a viewer to see the piece in its entirety.
Not so with writing!
One of the biggest challenges a writer faces is to make sure that her audience reads to the end of the piece. This is especially true of slush editors who, within the first few sentences of a story, know whether it is worth their time to read on or not. Recently, I've had several rejections in which the editors indicated that they read to the end of my story. Even though the rejections stung (they always do!), it gave me great satisfaction to know that I could write a story that people - even editors! - wanted to finish.
So how can that be accomplished?
As I mentioned in a previous post, a shocking ending is not a great way to accomplish this. A writer who composes a story with a shocking ending must put so much energy into the buildup, that other elements of story telling (characterization, setting) oftentimes get lost.
One great way to build tension in a story and keep a reader moving forward is the use of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a situation in which the readers know something that the characters do not. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo thinks his beloved is dead. The audience, however, knows that Juliet is simply drugged.
Dramatic irony is a twist on story telling because in a traditional, linear plot, readers and characters are carried into the unknown by the writer. The advantage to dramatic irony is that the audience can become very anxious on the behalf of their favorite character, wondering when and how the character will finally come to realize what he doesn't know. Mentally, they can be begging him to do or not do something because they have knowledge he does not. (Sometimes, the audience might be verbally communicating this - have you ever gone to a movie and shouted at the actress on the screen, "Don't go into the basement!!"). At it's best, dramatic irony can create an almost unendurable tension in the readers, making them want to read on in order to see how the tension is resolved.
Of course, using dramatic irony is a difficult skill, for in order to work, dramatic irony must weave more than a single thread of narrative. There is the thread that the audience knows (Juliette is drugged, not dead), as well as the thread that only the character knows (my beloved has killed herself!). It takes some skill to do this, but the payoff can be tremendous.
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