Dramatic Irony in Fiction: Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See

Don’t you love it when you’re reading a novel and you find a passage of writing so good, so vivid or haunting or revelatory that you want to stop and read it again? I marked scores of such passages in All the Light We Cannot See:

“From afar, the smoke appears strangely solid, as though carved from luminous wood.”
“They drive a dusty track surrounded by square miles of dying sunflowers so tall that they seem like trees. The stems have dried and stiffened, and the faces bob like praying heads, and as the Opel bellows past, Werner feels as if they are being watched by ten thousand Cyclopic eyes.” 
“The tip of her cane shudders as it knocks against the runnels, finding every storm drain. She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog.”

There are literally dozens of different craft topics I could have chosen to write about in this book – and in fact I’m planning to use parts of it in upcoming classes I’m teaching on the archetypal shadow and image systems in fiction – but I zeroed in on one particular issue that has been of interest to me lately, one which I noticed on the very first page: the use of dramatic irony as an engine for suspense. Consider these passages from the book’s brilliant opening:

“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.”
“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon. France.”

It’s a killer opening, not only because of the vivid, poetic prose – we know we’re in the hands of a talented wordsmith – but because we’ve been put on notice about what’s coming. We’ve been granted a wider view than the inhabitants of the town, and so we need to read on to find out what happens to these poor unwitting souls.

And then a few chapters in we have this passage. Our characters are children in a German orphanage:

“Every evening he carries his radio downstairs, and Frau Elena lets her wards listen for an hour. They tune in to newscasts, concerts, operas, national choirs, folk shows, a dozen children in a semicircle on the furniture, Frau Elena among them, hardly more substantial than a child herself.      
We live in exciting times, says the radio. We make no complaints. We will plant our feet firmly in our earth, and no attack will move us.        
The older girls like musical competitions, radio gymnastics, a regular spot called Seasonal Tips for Those in Love that makes the younger children squeal. The boys like plays, news bulletins, martial anthems. Jutta likes jazz. Werner likes everything. Violins, horns, drums, speeches – a mouth against a microphone in some faraway yet simultaneous evening – the sorcery of it holds him rapt.          
 Is it any wonder, asks the radio, that courage, confidence, and optimism in growing measure fill the German people? Is not the flame of a new faith rising from this sacrificial readiness?”

The dread is completely our own – the characters don’t feel it at all. They don’t need to, because we perceive what’s coming. Our dread grips us, and we have no choice but to read on.

Although most of the book is written in the present tense, in what you might call “alternating close third POV,” the omniscient voice established in the opening pages bleeds through at various points, always bringing with it the chill of dread:

“The walls creak; the window between the curtains is black; the town prepares to sleep. Somewhere out there, German U-boats glide above underwater canyons, and thirty-foot squid ferry their huge eyes through the cold dark.”
“Neumann One, who, if he were not scheduled to die ten weeks from now in the Allied invasion of Normandy, might have become a barber later in life . . . ”

In a sense this whole novel is built on dramatic irony, which is probably true of any story that begins with a sequence from the chronological ending before looping back to the beginning. Throughout the book we have a sense of an accelerating rush toward a foregone conclusion, an inevitable convergence on the terrible event that is described at the beginning of the book. This is the dreadful power of dramatic irony: the idea that we know what’s coming but we’re still unable to look away.

Of course, you have to be an amazing writer to pull this off, and Doerr does so with stunning effectiveness.

A Necessary Prologue: Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife

When does a novel require a prologue? Never, many would argue. Ask any agent, editor or wizened veteran of the novel-writing craft: if you can dispense with a prologue, do. And yet, so many novels have prologues. What gives?

This is a craft issue that has interested me for a long time, the more so now, as I embark on a new draft of a novel I’ve been working on. At a recent literary event at which Paula McClain was a featured author, a friend mentioned the prologue to The Paris Wife, and how highly he thought of it. I’d read the book a few years ago and loved it, in part because of my long-term interest in the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, but mostly because it’s just such an ambitious, beautiful, readable novel. But I hadn’t paid much attention to the underlying structure, and I picked it up a few days ago to re-read the prologue.

In common with the rest of McClain’s novel, the prologue is beautifully written. It gives us our first taste of the book’s voice, which is a lovely voice steeped in the language and rhythms of the period, one that McClain succeeds in maintaining throughout the novel. But the voice could just as easily have been introduced in Chapter One, and the question I was interested in was, is McClain’s prologue necessary? After re-reading it a few times, I think it is. Here are two reasons:

The first reason is that it sets the stage for the novel’s action in an alluring way, evoking for the reader some important elements of the book’s historical setting: the lingering trauma of WWI and the legendary ambiance of 1920s Paris:

“Interesting people were everywhere just then. The caf├ęs of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers. On any given night, you could see Picasso walking from Sant-Germain to his apartment in the rue de Grands Augustins, always exactly the same route and always looking quietly at everyone and everything. Nearly anyone might feel like a painter walking in the streets of Paris then because the light brought it out in you, and the shadows alongside the buildings, and the bridges which seemed to want to break your heart, and the sculpturally beautiful women in Chanel’s black sheath dresses, smoking and throwing back their heads to laugh.”

This is wonderful stuff, intentionally reminiscent of Hemingway’s great final opus, A Moveable Feast. Reading it, I was irresistibly drawn to a novel set in this fascinating world. The thing is, the actual story begins when Hadley Richardson meets Ernest Hemingway, not in Paris but in the American Midwest. So without this prologue or its equivalent, we wouldn’t have had this delicious and highly seductive foretaste.

The second reason, even more compelling, comes in the final paragraph of the prologue:

“This isn't a detective story – not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well-made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.”

I felt a kind of internal shiver when I read this passage, even for the second and third time, and I suspect most other readers did too. In an organic and strikingly visual manner, McClain has put us on notice: get ready, a life-wrecking disaster is on the way. Why would McClain reveal this important plot development, which is a major dramatic feature of the book, so early? Probably because she felt that the first part of her story wouldn’t have had insufficient dramatic tension without it. We need to experience the charming, innocent phase of the relationship, the falling in love and trying to make it work, so that we become attached to this couple and have a stake in the success of their relationship. That way it’s all the more dramatic and meaningful when the relationship is broken up by the “pretty otter in my kitchen.”

If McClain had begun the book without introducing the specter of Pauline Pfeiffer waiting in the wings, we might not have felt as much impetus to read on. As it is, we as readers have been placed in a deliciously uncomfortable state of having more information than the characters; we know what’s going to befall them, and so we are filled with dread. This uncomfortable state of foreknowledge is known as dramatic irony. It’s an extremely effective tool for creating suspense. Without the prologue, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this position. Perhaps we would have read on anyway, buoyed by the intrinsic interest of the story and by McClain’s lovely writing. Or perhaps not.

So yes, the prologue to The Paris Wife feels necessary. And it’s brilliantly done.

At the above mentioned literary event I learned that we can expect another novel from Ms. McClain, this one about an intriguing figure from the first part of the 20th century, Beryl Markham, the author of the stunning memoir of Africa and the early days of aviation, West With the Night. Given Ms. McClain’s skill as a writer and her unusual talent for capturing the voice and feel of an age, I very much look forward to reading it!


Historical Fiction: A Conversation about Genre and Meaning

It was my great pleasure to be interviewed recently by Alden Jones of the Fiction Writers Review about the “genre” of historical fiction, the process of researching Will Poole’s Island, the differences between writing novels and short stories, and more. Here's an extended excerpt:

"The Historical Novels Review has a working definition of historical fiction: it takes place more than fifty years in the past, and the author is constructing one crucial element of the setting—the time period—from research rather than direct personal experience. But is historical fiction actually a genre in the way that fantasy or science fiction or romance or crime are genres? I don’t think so. Not if you consider that by the above definition, books as divergent in approach and structure and voice as A Tale of Two CitiesBlood MeridianThe English Patient, and The Pillars of the Earth would all be grouped in the same genre . . . 

And here’s the thing about writing historical fiction: you’re not trying to reconstruct or mimic history, which would be altogether boring even if it weren’t impossible. What you’re trying to do is to create a new version of it that will tell a good story while simultaneously capturing something essential, not only about the period, but also about contemporary life. Given all this, every one of my characters must, to some extent and by definition, reflect 21st-century American values."

Read the full interview here.