By Phil Parker
What will elevate your concept above the randomness of coincidence is how you make that situation ironic. Phil Parker gives tips on tackling irony in your story concept long before the rewrite.
Irony to the rescue!
Except for poetry, screenwriting is perhaps one of the most condensed forms of storytelling, but the irony is that most screenwriters overwrite - and that's ok! After all, you need to vomit all your thoughts on to the page; purge the good and the bad out of your head and into the world where it's more easily organized. The real writing is in the re-writing, right!
But what if there was a way to bring the central conflict of your story into sharper focus from the very beginning so that your rewrites aren't a seemingly endless journey through a fiery maze in hell?
I believe there is a way – by focusing on creating situational irony for your main character.
What is irony?
There are three types of irony in screenwriting (and in general) - situational, dramatic and verbal - and for a great article that clearly explains the difference check out this Reedsy blog post on irony. For the purposes of this article, however, I want to focus on just one – situational irony – for it's a key ingredient in many a great film concept.
First, let's start with a dictionary definition of situational irony:
(noun): irony involving a situation in which actions have an effect that is opposite from what was intended, so that the outcome is contrary to what was expected.
To avoid being predictable, and thus boring their audiences, great screenwriters fill their scripts with lots of little scenes that would fit that description. On a broader concept level though, there is one over-arching irony that matters most – and it comes from who the character is and the story you've put them in.
Irony is not coincidence
Now, some screenwriters (and songwriters) may mistake irony for coincidence or bad luck, e.g. "rain on your wedding day" is coincidence; "a free ride when you've already paid" is bad luck (as singer/ songwriter Alanis Morissette recently copped to). However, if a world-famous meteorologist predicted clear skies for his wedding day, and then he was killed by a bolt of lightning during a storm in the middle of the ceremony – THAT would be ironic (and tragic...unless the hero of the story was someone at the wedding, planning to object to their union. Doubly ironic? Hmmm...)
“What about a film like Die Hard?” you ask. “The fact that terrorists just happen to take over the Nakatomi building on the same day the main character (John McClain) is visiting his wife – isn't THAT coincidence?”
Well, it is, but without that, you wouldn't have a film. Audiences will forgive you for one major moment of coincidence if it's the inciting incident that defines your story. The thing that will elevate your concept above the randomness of that coincidence, though, is how you make that situation ironic.
In Die Hard, what makes it ironic is who John is (as a person) and what he wants. He's going to the building to try and reconcile with his wife but he sees his wife's move to L.A. from New York only in terms of how it impacts him. He feels abandoned, and he's a bit too self-centered to see the impact his attitude has had on Holly. And apparently his career suffers from the same lack of self-awareness, for we learn that he often gets in trouble with his police Captain (i.e. he's an irresponsible cop). THAT'S why, when the terrorists hit the building, John finds himself in an ironic situation – he's the kind of person who doesn't want to take responsibility.
“Well, guess what, John - you want to reconcile with your wife? OK, but now you gotta save her life to do it!”
Get the idea?
Reduce your rewrites – find your irony first
Blake Snyder, in his excellent screenwriting book, Save the Cat, urges writers to discover and test a logline for their concept BEFORE they start writing, and I tend to agree. Most screenwriters HATE writing them though, myself included. It has slowed me down considerably in getting my next script written and makes me want to tear my hair out!
Part of my struggle has been in finding the irony for my character. In searching for it, I often overcomplicate my concept, and I suspect other screenwriters do, too. That's part of my creative process, though – start with a cool concept, pile stuff on top of it, then edit, edit, edit until only the essential and most compelling ingredients are left.
Easier said than done though, right?
What’s helped me to do it better and faster lately is studying famous films and boiling them down to a logline that reflects the situational irony in each one. When I do that, it becomes crystal clear why they were all green lit and why they went on to be such successful films.
See what you think.
- DIE HARD: An irresponsible cop attends his estranged wife’s office Christmas party on the day terrorists attack her building and is forced to depend only on himself to save her.
- JAWS: A cop seeking the quiet life is forced back into action when a killer shark targets his small town.
- ALIENS: A traumatized space pilot must help destroy the monster that nearly killed her or face losing her livelihood.
- THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI: To avoid being executed, a Navy deserter must lead a team back to the Japanese POW camp he escaped from in order to blow up a bridge being built by the Allied prisoners.
- CASABLANCA: A cynical café owner seeking to escape his past comes face to face with the woman who broke his heart and must help save her lover from the Nazis in order to win her back.
- JURASSIC PARK: A happily child-free paleontologist finds himself trapped in a real-life dinosaur tourist park with the grandkids of the owner and must help them escape when the dinosaurs start to hunt them.
- SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: A gentle-natured accountant, wrongly convicted of murder, must become the bookkeeper for a sadistic warden in order to plot his escape before he loses all hope.
- DANCES WITH WOLVES: A suicidal soldier given command of a remote outpost is befriended by Indians who need his help to survive being slaughtered by his own army.
- LAST OF THE MOHICANS: A freedom-loving, Native American half-breed must risk his life to protect the same British officers who seek to forcibly conscript him after he falls in love with one of their daughters.
- TERMINATOR 2: The future leader of a resistance army must learn to work with the same cyborg that tried to kill his mother in order to stop a new and stronger cyborg sent from the future to kill him, or all humanity will be lost.
- NORTH BY NORTHWEST: An advertising executive is mistaken for an FBI agent by a deadly foreign spy and must find the real agent to prove his innocence, but when he discovers it was a fictional character created by the FBI to trap the spy, the executive must become him in order to save the woman he loves.
- RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: An agnostic archaeologist is recruited to stop the Nazis from harnessing the mythic powers of the Ark of the Covenant before they can use it to win WWII.
- STAR WARS: A simple farm boy must master a complex mystical power that lies within him in order to defeat a grand wizard bent on conquering the galaxy.
- GLADIATOR: Rome’s greatest general flees for his life after being betrayed by his tyrannical emperor and must rise again as a humble gladiator in order to avenge the murder of his family and save the empire.
See how the irony in each one helps to make who the character is, what they want, what's at stake and who is opposing them so much more compelling? It highlights both the inner and outer journey of the hero while still keeping the logline fairly high concept (something most screenwriters struggle with when writing loglines). In this way it can act as the touch rail for your story, the thing you go back to when you feel lost in the weeds, because often the irony flows from the theme of your screenplay, e.g. the hare and the turtle have a race, but the turtle wins (irony) because the theme is "slow and steady wins the race."
Fail to plan; plan to fail
Make no mistake, approaching your next big idea in this way is hard work, and maddeningly frustrating, but when it clicks – you'll know it in your bones! When you tell your irony-laden concept/ logline to people and their eyes light up with genuine interest it will all be worth it! You'll get that tingling sensation, the hairs on your arms may even stand up and you will write the BLEEP out of that sucka! And because you took the time to perfect it, you will in the end save yourself weeks/ months/ years of fruitless rewriting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Phil Parker is a working, optioned and multi-award winning screenwriter who was recently named one of ISA’s Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2018. His WWII script ‘The Third Bomb’ is currently being packaged by BAFTA-winning producer Sias Wilson. The animated feature project he was hired to develop, ‘Catsaway’ is also currently in development with Tent Pictures Productions.For more information on his screenwriting and script consultant services visit storiesbyphil.com - Follow @phil_parker_screenwriter on Instagram.