Irony - What is it? How Do You Use it in Your Writing?
What is irony? With apologies to Alanis Morissette, it's not rain on your wedding day.
Through the use of irony, authors can engage readers and create multiple layers of meaning within their text, building a stronger, deeper story.
Irony, as Christopher Warner described it, is a literary device in which one thing appears to be true, but in fact, it is actually the opposite. Authors use irony to help readers understand the difference between presentation and reality within the confines of their story. This experience often creates a better grasp of a book’s theme or purpose.
The word irony comes from the ancient Greek word eironeia, meaning dissimulation or feigned ignorance. Irony was a major component in the storytelling of the ancient Greeks, especially in their tragedies like Oedipus the King. This literary device enhances stories showcasing morals, teachings and principles.
In this article, I’ll be talking about two different types of irony:
What is the definition of Situational Irony?
Situational irony is the incongruity between what someone might expect to happen in everyday life, and the actual outcome. More specifically, the outcome is usually the exact opposite of what readers expect to happen in the setup. In this form of irony, the situation, once revealed, should be a surprise and thus can often lead to comedy or tragedy as the character experiences the unanticipated consequences.
Everyday examples of situational irony in real life include:
A fire station burning down. A firefighter’s job is to prevent and stop fires.
A driving instructor running a red light
A police station getting robbed
Washing your car and it starting to rain
Searching for your phone everywhere and realizing it’s in your hand
A dentist with multiple cavities
A librarian with overdue books
A building architect who is afraid of heights
Posting a tweet on Twitter complaining about how awful Twitter is as a communication social media platform
Examples of Situational Irony in Literature
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry is probably the most famous example of an ironic situation in literature.
This short story has been adapted and retold in many iterations, particularly at Christmas. The story revolves around a young married couple with little money. Each wants to buy a present of value for the other. Della, the wife, sells her beautiful long hair to buy Jim, her husband, a watch chain for his precious pocket watch. Jim sells his watch to buy Della combs for her long locks. The irony can be found in the fact the gift exchange has no value as they each have gifts which are essentially useless to the receiver. Paired with the irony of their sacrifice for each other and this touching story lingers in the minds of readers.
For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshiped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jeweled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”
Another classic example of situational irony can be found in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. In this children’s story, Matilda is a six-year-old who is more sensible and calm than the unreasonable and hot-headed adults around her. This is a reversal of what is expected in relationships between children and adults, where the grownups usually have the larger share of maturity.
“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She traveled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”
In Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, the titular character is abandoned by his parents due to a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother – which he ultimately does, without realizing it.
In The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin, a wife believes her husband has dies, and imagines a life of freedom and happiness without him. When he returns home alive and well, the unexpected shock is so overwhelming it kills her.
Looking for a more recent example? A famous example of situational irony can be found in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. Throughout the seven books, Professor Snape is portrayed as the enemy of Harry Potter. In the last book, as Snape dies, Harry learns the Professor was actually protecting the boy from Voldemort and his henchmen the entire time, sacrificing his safety and ultimately his life for Harry.
“Albus Severus,” Harry said quietly, so that nobody but Ginny could hear, and she was tactful enough to pretend to be waving to Rose, who was now on the train, “you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”
Pro-Tip: Situational irony can add punch to a short story. In compressed writing, this literary device can underpin the central theme and thus give the reader a lasting impression.
What is Dramatic Irony?
Dramatic irony is when the audience or reader knows more than the character or characters in the story. The reader knows the characters will find out eventually, but they don’t know when or how. This form of irony creates tension and suspense and most often leads to tragedy. Unlike situational irony, which uses irony to surprise the audience with a twist, dramatic irony keeps readers engaged and enthralled while they are reading the events of the scene. Dramatic irony has the power to turn an average story into a page turner.
Examples of Dramatic Irony in Literature
A classic example of dramatic irony is the ending of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
At the end of the play, the audience is well aware Juliet is not actually dead, simply under the power of a sleeping potion to give the illusion of death, all so she can be with Romeo. However, Romeo believes the woman in his arms is dead, and true to his character, makes an impulsive, rash decision and kills himself so as to not have to live in a world without Juliet. Their worlds and story would have changed if only Romeo knew the knowledge the audience knows about the sleeping draft. Because the audience knows both were so close to getting what they wanted, to be together, this tragic irony leaves some shocked and all saddened by the sense of hopelessness.
What’s here? a cup, clos’d in my true love’s hand?
Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.
O churl! drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after! I will kiss thy lips;
Haply, some poison yet doth hang on them,
To make me die with a restorative. [Kisses him.]
Thy lips are warm!
First Watch: [Within.] Lead, boy: which way?
Juliet: Yea, noise? then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger! [Snatching ROMEO’S dagger.]
This is thy sheath; [Stabs herself.] there rest, and let me die. [Falls on ROMEO’S body and dies.]
A more modern-day example of dramatic irony can be found in James Cameron’s movie Titanic. Before the audience watches the opening credits, everyone knows the boat this movie is named after is going to be struck by an iceberg, and most of the passengers and crew will perish when it sinks. For more than one hundred minutes of screen time, none of the characters in the film have any idea this will be their last night on earth.
Dramatic irony can be found also in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. In fact, there are many dramatic irony strings in the book. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, suspense and horror are created when Hermione goes into the girl’s bathroom. Readers know there is a mountain troll in there, but Hermione is unaware.
“But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. Because there are somethings you can’t go through in life and become friends, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”
The Three Stages of Irony
Preparation: Giving the readers the facts in a way they know the upcoming truth, but the characters don’t.
Suspension: Characters make a decision based on the assumption that something different is true, which leads to consequences
Resolution: Characters discover what the reader has known all along, realize they were wrong and live with the consequences.
Tips for Writing Irony
1. First and foremost, for dramatic irony to work, the audience has to care for the characters. The scenes require a feeling of helplessness for the audience, unable to stop the characters from making the mistakes they would otherwise not make if they had the same knowledge. Because the audience knows more, there is a sense of guilt, but also often paired with a sense of satisfaction.
2. Consider giving different characters different types or amounts of information in your story. This infuses layers of intricacy for the reader to sift through. Only the readers will have all the information and they can see how the characters use the information they have and make choices based on those details.
3. Give your readers a little more information or information just before the main character gets the details. This is an excellent way to create thrilling, on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense. When the reader knows more than the hero, this generates anticipation and interest. For example, if the hero is breaking into a warehouse to save their partner and the partner was killed in an earlier chapter, the reader is now anticipating the moment the hero walks in. They are filled with expectation and a desire to know how the hero will react.
4. Try a different perspective to create suspense. Flip the tables and tell the story not from your hero’s perspective, but maybe a different character or even the antagonist. The advantage here is you as a writer, get to give your reader insights into the story that the main character or protagonist does not have.
5. Hook important turning points to dramatic irony action moments or statements from your characters. For example, in a classic horror movie moment, one character refutes the existence of danger and walks bravely into the empty house, which the audience knows is anything but empty, with the psycho killer hiding in the closet.
6. Try using irony to infuse humor into your story. A character’s limited knowledge has them responding to a situation in ways that seem appropriate to them but hilarious to the reader. The characters’ ignorance can become comical. In Jon Favreau’s Elf, the audience is well aware that Buddy is not one of Santa’s elves. The irony works as comedy because the audience gets to see Buddy do things an elf might, because that is what he believes. Also, there is hilarity because readers can relate to the surrounding characters who realize how strange the situation is, thus connecting with the characters.
A few words of caution
Don’t lose track
Deciding to infuse your story with irony has many benefits, but be careful to keep track of who knows what and when. Readers will be watching for clues and testing theories throughout your book or series, and any scenes or statements from characters that are out of place will snag your readers’ attention and potentially throw them out of the story.
Don’t over do it
If your goal is to add humor, watch out that you don’t go overboard. Pushing the limits by making your characters defy the rules of reality, repeating silly actions or generally appearing stupid has the potential for your readers to lose faith in the characters and the story. They will scoff at their bad decision making or consider your writing lazy or cliched. This is often a fault of horror stories, where cheesiness might work for a while, but the audience can get bored quickly.
You don’t have to wait until the end of your story to infuse some dramatic irony. Consider Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying, where the killer’s identity is revealed two-thirds of the way through the book. That leaves one third of the book for readers to watch the murderer weave in and out of the lives of the other characters. Every time a reader’s favorite character is now in the same proximity of the exposed killer, they worry about their safety.
Add some irony
Dramatic and situational Irony can be fun literary techniques to experiment with, which can amplify your story with suspense, nail-biting scenes, or moments of hilarity to break up tense moments. When done right, irony can draw readers into your book, making them devour it, and leave them with a lasting, memorable impression they’ll want to discuss with everyone who has read your book. Done right, irony adds layers and complexity to your writing and your plot.