Robert McKee on irony and audience

Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting () lives up to the hype given it by Stephen Carter, Angela Hallstrom and Lisa Torcasso Downing over at The Red Brick Store. Yes, writers of fiction and theater need to adapt it for their own uses, and McKee overreaches in places, and like anything, if followed too slavishly, the result is going to be one kind of plot. But it’s funny and illuminating and well worth reading. In particular, I enjoyed what McKee has to say about irony (pages 129-129; italics original):

The effect of irony on an audience is that wonderful reaction, “Ah, life is just like that.” We recognize that idealism and pessimism are at the extremes of experience, that life is rarely all sunshine and strawberries, nor is it all doom and drek; it is both. From the worst of experiences something positive can be gained; for the richest of experiences a great price must be paid. No matter how we try to plot a straight passage through life, we sail on the tides of irony. Reality is relentlessly ironic, and this is why stories that end in irony tend to last the longest through time, travel the widest in the world, and draw the greatest love and respect from audiences.

This is also why, of the three possible emotional charges at climax, irony is by far the most difficult to write. It demands the deepest wisdom and the highest craft for three reasons.
First, it’s tough enough to come up with either a bright, idealistic ending or a sober, pessimistic climax that’s satisfying and convincing. But an ironic climax is a single action that makes both a positive and negative statement. How to do two in one?
Second, how to say both clearly. Irony doesn’t mean ambiguity. Ambiguity is a blur; one thing cannot be distinguished from another. But there’s nothing ambiguous about irony; it’s a clear, double declaration of what’s gained and what’s lost, side by side. Nor does irony mean coincidence. A true irony is honestly motivated. Stories that end by random chance, doubly charger or not, are meaningless, not ironic.
Third, if at climax the life situation of the protagonist is both positive and negative, how to express it so that the two charges remain separated in the audience’s experience and don’t cancel each other out, and you end up saying nothing?
Reality is indeed relentlessly ironic and the LDS understanding of why this is so doesn’t make the presence of irony any less painful, wonderful, fascinating or real. In fact, in my opinion, the more I learn about the Gospel and about the realities of life, the more I appreciate irony — and look for its artful use in the stories I consume.

8 thoughts on “Robert McKee on irony and audience”

  1. William,

    Some thoughts…

    First, reading this makes me wonder a bit just how broad McGee’s definition of irony is. Something about the definition above seems a bit too all-encompassing. I don’t typically think of irony as being simply something that’s simultaneously positive and negative, but rather (a) negative in a way that to some extent undercuts the positive, and (b) in a way that also does not take itself entirely seriously. However, I also have to admit that my thinking on this topic isn’t really developed. For one thing, I haven’t read Wayne Booth’s classic study of irony, though it’s on my (exceedingly long) to-read list… I also assume that McGee may have said more about irony than simply what you’ve quoted here. Yes?

    Second, on a practical level, the thing I’ve noticed about irony is that it only seems to work when writers and readers are very much in sync with each other. More than almost any other mode or element of writing, it seems to me that irony is apt to misinterpretation. Even with a group as (apparently) homogeneous as AML-List, I found as moderator that nearly any ironic statement would be interpreted as fully serious by some readers. It’s my belief, based partly on that experience and partly on the experience of watching (and sometimes teaching) readers as they react to writing, that irony often only “works” within an existing community whose members have been indoctrinated (in the technical sense) in what is considered ironic and what isn’t considered ironic. In short, it seems to me successful use of irony is highly fragile and audience-dependent. Is this something that McGee addresses?

    Finally, I would question somewhat the premise that “reality is ironic.” While life may often seem ironic in this mortal sphere, is the LDS version of reality truly an ironic one ultimately? I don’t know.

    I’d also point out that this is one of the reasons why irony fails for many readers: because whether or not it works is based on premises about what reality is like that are ultimately as much about existential belief as they are about “realism.” As is so often the case, what starts out as a discussion of craft thus quickly reveals itself to be very much about higher and deeper things.

  2. .

    While I think I agree more with McGee than Langford on this point, I would like some examples of movies that end this way to be sure I know what is meant. Casablanca?

  3. Joanthan:

    Good points. As I recall, McKee doesn’t say a whole lot more than what I quoted above.


    Funny you should mention it. Casablanca is the movie McKee cites for everything.

  4. .

    It was the only one I could think of that really seemed to say what he was saying. Did he have any other examples so I can triangulate?

  5. I think “The Bicycle Thief” (or “Bicycle Thieves”) is a great example of irony. It doesn’t necessarily follow McKee’s definition of good irony but the crisis sure hits the viewer like a thunder clap. And somehow the characters do nothing more than behave rationally within the bounds of a plausible premise with a plausible complication.

  6. As I said in that Red Brick Store post, McKee makes my brain spin. Actually, sometimes he makes it hurt. Could be why I still haven’t finished the book.

    I find this passage insightful, if not instructive. I had always been one to use the term “ambiguous” about endings that he, I think fairly, dubs ironic. I thought of irony as using words one way with the intent of meaning something else entirely, not to mean something in addition to the literal. I prefer this term because if a writer calls some aspect of his story ambiguous, to me it sounds as if there is a lack of control, like he/she wasn’t really sure where he/she was going. Writing an ironic ending v. an ambiguous one is about skill, set up, planning and tying bows.

    Now for a reader to find an ending ambiguous… that’s different. The reader ought to give pause at an ironic ending and wonder which direction to think about the ending. So an ironic ending can leave a sense of ambiguity in the reader, but an ending shouldn’t be constructed as ambiguous by the writer because that may signal a lack of control. Ambiguity is something the reader should experience, but not something that the writer write. Control, control, control.

    McKee is a fun exercise in brain gymnastics.

  7. Perhaps “ambivalent” (possessing two values) is a better term than “ambiguous.” I’m still not sure that this is the same thing as irony, as the term is typically understood by literary scholars.

  8. Here I am again, participating in a discussion about a book I haven’t read. But I have a weakness for discussions about irony–just can’t help myself!

    About this:

    The effect of irony on an audience is that wonderful reaction, “Ah, life is just like that.”

    A “revelation” like this would seem to run counter to what I understand to be the actual energy of irony. In my experience, and to many scholars’ thinking, the more vital effect of irony on audience and/or artist runs something more like, “Oh, life isn’t what I thought it was at all.”

    I think I do like this, but again, not having read the book, I can’t be sure of McKee’s context:

    From the worst of experiences something positive can be gained; for the richest of experiences a great price must be paid.

    Though the price that must be paid is the rendering up of something–a belief, an impression, an entire worldview–that has become burdensome or else might have been exploded in the typical ironic destruction.

    First, it’s tough enough to come up with either a bright, idealistic ending or a sober, pessimistic climax that’s satisfying and convincing. But an ironic climax is a single action that makes both a positive and negative statement. How to do two in one?

    I’m no fan of categorical exclusiveness (i.e., endings being either positive or negative). But to say that an ironic climax makes both a positive and negative statement artificially limits ironic climaxes as well as other aspects of artistic ironic language. Irony is a far, far more complex trope than that. The best ironic language refracts experience into an entire spectrum of possibilities, including some that lay outside the typically visible range of its light. Paradox, on the other hand–which is a type of irony but not the whole peppery enchilada–might adhere more to this pattern, as in, for example, that whole “lose your life to find your life” kind of way.

    I think about irony all the time. Yeah, I know–that’s pitiful, but it’s true, and why not? In order to approach understanding of many of the most compelling and mind-bending stories of the Old Testament, you have to read wearing irony-tinted 3-D glasses. And Jesus’ teachings beat with an ironic heart. Wm’s intimation that the Gospel is charged up on irony is probably a good one (hard to tell, since it is just an intimation). But the creative life in general flourishes in irony’s teeming environment.

    I’ve written about irony here and here. It’s high-falutin’ stuff but studied (because I think about irony all the time) and provides a historical overview of the trope that some might find helpful.

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