Have you ever watched someone you love hurtling headlong for disaster? I hope not. It makes you want to reach out and physically contain them – in your arms, in a safe place, even in an institution, if that’s what it takes. When a person is, for whatever reason, powerless to influence what is happening to them, it is easy to blame events on a malign fate engineering punishment, whether it’s justified or not. For the saddened spectator, knowing what is coming further down the track when the victim can’t or won’t see it for themselves provokes extraordinarily complex emotions – guilt, terror, and despair; maybe even relief that your own life isn’t like that.
When you are writing fiction, putting your reader in a similar position – that of omniscient spectator – is called dramatic irony. You manipulate the story so that the reader doesn’t just have the pleasure of finding out what happens next, they are privy to it some time before the protagonist. This puts them in an ambiguous position. It can increase the suspense of your story if you hold up the possibility that your hero might, at the eleventh hour, realise what is afoot and avert disaster; it can arouse intense feelings of frustration or pity when this doesn’t happen. In Othello, the audience knows about Iago’s machinations and deceptions while Othello himself remains in ignorance. Using dramatic irony is a fantastic way of engaging your reader more directly with your story. It changes them from being passive recipients of events into active participants because you are effectively implicating them in what is going on. Give them more information than your hero has and you are turning them into your accomplices.