He Knows that She Knows that He Knows that They Know that She Knows…

September 16, 2009 at 11:01 AM | Posted in Reading, teen fiction, Writing, Writing Advice, YA | 4 Comments

But he doesn’t know that they know that she knows that he knows that they know that she knows. And they don’t know that she knows that he knows that they know about that other thing…

Dramatic Irony: “when the words and actions of the characters of a work of literature have a different meaning for the reader than they do for the characters. This is the result of the reader having a greater knowledge than the characters themselves”.1

It’s a brilliant literary device. It engages readers, enhances tragedy, creates endless opportunities for humor. But everyone knows all about dramatic irony, right? I’m sure my English teacher wasn’t the only one who went on about it ad nauseam while reading Shakespeare. So I’m not going to ramble on about it.

Suffice to say that dramatic irony revolves around an imbalance of knowledge. One party (the audience) knows more than another (the character, or characters). The audience sees a tragedy that Romeo and Juliet do not. Seemingly straightforward statements from one character and another are double entendres and sexual innuendos to the audience.

It’s this imbalance of knowledge that I want to talk about. Not only can it exist between the character and the reader, but it also exists between the characters themselves.

It’s something I’ve had to think about a lot lately, since I’ve been giving myself a nice mess of spies, informants, traitors, hidden motives, and general mistrust to deal with.

For instance, Character A is a spy, and obviously doesn’t want anyone to know. Unfortunately for A, Character B knows. Character A knows B knows, but B doesn’t know that A knows he knows. Neither of them knows that Character C also knows, and C doesn’t know that B knows. Meanwhile Character D knows nothing, but is trying to seduce Character A.

And, I, the author, know everything, which can get bothersome when I forget that while I might know Character Y is craving pork chops for dinner, Character F does not. Therefore, Character F, who quite likes food, cannot stumble upon some pork chops and conveniently not eat them so that they are conveniently available to be used as a bargaining chip with Character Y later in the evening.

Okay, that was a random example, but do you see what I’m getting at?

Each character has their own specific and ever-changing base of knowledge, along with (of course) their own personalities, motivations, relationships, and so forth. All of these factors are constantly determining how each character acts or reacts, what they say, what they do, who they spend time with – it affects everything. All the time.

The reader will notice if the author slips up – if a character knows something they weren’t supposed to, if they say something for the benefit of the reader that they wouldn’t normally say, or if a character acts a certain way preemptively.

That is to say, if Character B would have happily shown the Secret Document to Character A before Character A became a spy, Character B can’t not show Character A the Secret Document when he doesn’t know that Character A is a spy, even if the author’s life would be easier/the plot would be more interesting if Character A didn’t see the Secret Document.

Did that make any sense at all?

I suppose this is all a convoluted way of saying that all of your characters have to stay in character. Which, of course, everyone knows, and a lot of decent writers do it subconsciously. But for me and my twisted snarls of distrust and hidden motives, this what-they-know/don’t-know aspect of it was beginning to trip me up as the plot got more complicated. I got caught when I was creating plot points without considering how likely those plot points would really be – were they in line with my characters knowledge, motives, and skills of subterfuge? Or was I looking for a way to let the audience in on the secret too early?

These problems were amplified by the fact that I’m writing in first-person. Therefore the audience is primarily limited to knowing only as much as the MC does – excluding what they might guess. As tempting as it is, I can’t have all of my little spies repeatedly slipping up in front of the MC, dropping hints that they’re spies, just to have something niggle at the reader.  Or, more accurately, Idiot Spy can slip up, but Awesome Spy (who’s really the one causing problems) cannot.


So, in a nut shell, make sure you keep track of:

1)   Who knows what at each specific point
2)   What they would let other people know that they know
3)   What they would let other people know they want
4)   What they really know/want
5)   How they would act/react, knowing what they know and wanting what they want
6)   How good are they at hiding what they really know/want

Now I’ll stop blathering and let you get back to your regularly scheduled blog-browsing. ;)

-Becca (AKA Elusive)

1 http://contemporarylit.about.com/cs/literaryterms/g/dramaticIrony.htm

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