Irony can be found in all stories, both great and small, successful or not, and should be shown through the actions of the characters and plot. In fact, ask any professional writer to give one piece of advice that they believe will help a novice writer to improve their work and a high percentage of them will say “Show, don’t tell.” This ‘rule’ is tricky to come to terms with in the novel and short story forms, but in screenwriting it is a must.
Screenwriting is a visual medium. Screenwriters put words on the page that paint pictures. Unlike novelists, they can’t ‘tell’ their readers that their main character works in a bank or travels the world as an international jewel thief (and even novelists have to write visually if the action is integral to the plot). If it can’t be seen on screen then it shouldn’t be in the screenplay.
So how do you, as a screenwriter, show and not tell?
The basic way is to ensure that you reveal your characters through action. An audience wants to see your characters ‘doing’ things. This is the whole basis of drama. Yet, that’s quite simplistic and on a professional level, screenwriters want their scenes, their images, to portray a message to the audience, a meaning. One of the best techniques to do this is irony.
Elysium’s dystopian political theme (what it’s really about) is concerned with how the rich beat down and entrap the lower classes in order to get richer off their labour. It’s a classic allegory that, as mentioned earlier, literature has recycled for centuries.
As a screenwriter, Blomkamp constructs a sequence that not only introduces us to the main character, Max (Damon), it also introduces us to the theme of the narrative (just like the exoskeleton that’s bolted to Max’s body, the theme in a screenplay has to be bolted to the main character, but that’s a different lesson), and he uses irony to do it. Here’s how it plays out…
After we see Max as a young child and learn what his goal is – to get to Elysium – we see him as an adult navigating through a third world-like Los Angeles setting of crumbled buildings on his way to work. He trudges through children begging for money and people riding him because they think he’s working for nothing (which he isn’t; he’s working to save money to buy a ticket to Elysium). At the bus stop two droid police pull up his wrap sheet, realise he’s been a bad boy in the past, and question him about where he’s going and what he’s carrying. Max shows a little sarcasm, so the droids rough him up, breaking his arm.
After a quick stop at the hospital, where he runs into his childhood sweetheart, Max arrives at work, and what is Max’s job? He builds the police droids that beat him up. The droids that enforce the laws and rules laid down by the rich. He helps the rich to beat him down and keep him out of Elysium (where he wants to go).
So not only has Blomkamp shown the audience Max’s situation, he’s also used irony to turn him into the thematic metaphor of the entire film. Max now symbolises the underclass and its problem.
Yet irony isn’t just limited to character, scenes or sequences. The premises of all the greatest films are forged using irony:
The Lord of the Rings – the fate of the world rests in the smallest, meekest of its creatures
Training Day – a decorated narcotics cop is the biggest criminal in the city
Titanic – two lovers meet and fall in love, but they’re from opposite ends of the social scale
There Will be Blood – a raving lunatic, self righteous and transparent man, has an irrational hatred for the character who is most like him
The King’s Speech – a King with a stammer must give a radio speech to his nation
Cast Away – Chuck is always on a tight schedule with not even a second to spare. Suddenly he’s marooned on an island with all the time in the world.
The lesson then is to understand every type and element of irony and employ it in every aspect of your screenplay’s (or novel’s) narrative, then sit back and watch the quality of your story grow. Irony is king when you’re writing a screenplay.