The Ironic Payoff: 4 Ways to Use Irony in Your Story’s Ending

Minor spoilers ahead for Bridesmaids, Peppermint, Brokeback Mountain, and Sierra Burgess is a Loser.

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Last week, we looked at principles of story setups and payoffs. We examined how these elements can drive the narrative journey in your script and thus the emotional voyage of the audience. This week, we will concentrate on the final principle discussed in that article — mastering the ironic payoff.

While irony can be an effective tool throughout your story, there’s perhaps no time it has greater impact than at the conclusion. Irony is not just about tricking the audience by revealing something they never saw coming. It is also an instrument that can be applied subtly to reinforce the reality of how life can thwart our plans, intentions, and dreams.

Of course, not all irony results in unhappy endings. Sometimes, especially in romantic comedies, protagonists are faced with the ironic realization that the type of person they deeply need has been at their side all along in the form of a close friend. However its executed, irony is most effective when it’s somehow tied to the protagonist’s wants or needs.

Here are four ways to use irony in the final scenes of your story.

1. The Hidden Gift

The protagonist gets what they need but not what they initially wanted

With this ending, the protagonist learns a valuable lesson – sometimes what we want and what we really need are two different things. Though the heroine may ultimately fail at achieving her external goal, she manages to secure the thing that meets her deepest internal need, which turns out to be much more valuable.

In Bridesmaids, Annie wants to be Lillian’s best friend. However, now that Lillian is getting married, she is devoting more of herself to her husband and has made new friends that also feel strongly about Lillian. Annie humorously — and tragically — is willing to destroy any competitor in order to get what she wants from Lillian. This causes her to lose what she has wanted so desperately. The hidden and ironic gift given to Annie at the end of the story is that her most viable competitor offers her the deep friendship she wanted from Lillian. A theme emerges suggesting that what we most long for may be waiting in the most unlikely of places.

2. The Gift Horse

The protagonist gets what they want but not what they really needed

Getting what we want can be our strongest driving force. Part of being human is to feel desire and to pursue those desires. While some hope their desires will eventually be presented to them without much effort, others go to extreme measures in order to grasp that which they long for. The problem with these pursuits is that they can feel empty when finally obtained. When what we want is not what we really need, the victory of the moment quickly fades.

In Peppermint, Riley North gets the revenge she so desperately desires from those who took what she loved most. However, what she really needs is impossible to obtain, leaving her in deep pain even after she’s accomplished her goal.

3. The Greek Tragedy

The protagonist gets neither what they wanted nor what they needed

Perhaps the most difficult ending to execute is where the protagonist cannot get the satisfaction of their desires nor the inner fulfillment they truly need. These endings remain challenging because audiences have historically avoided such narratives, as they can be depressing and void of the hope we have come to expect in American storytelling. The usual theme of narratives with this type of irony is that sometimes we cannot have what we want in life, nor are we able to have what might bring us peace.

In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis wants Jack as both a lover and a friend. He needs a life filled with romance, love, and acceptance. When he finds out Jack has been killed near the end of the story, both what he wants and needs are taken from him.

4. The Home Run

The Protagonist gets both what they wanted and what they needed

It is rare in life that we get both what we want and what we need, make this ending the ultimate in irony. The challenge in crafting stories that will eventually end this way is to take the audience on a journey where they believe this ending won’t be possible. Tragic twists and turns are required to lead the audience through a path filled with close calls and near misses in order to have the ultimate happiness befall the protagonist in the story’s final moments.

In Sierra Burgess is a Loser, the protagonist must endure losing both everything she wants and everything she needs before finally having both return to her in the narrative’s final turn.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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