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.