What is irony? It’s the first day of Spring, and you grab your sunglasses, shorts, sandals, and a picnic basket. Except as soon as you step out of your house, you realize it’s snowing. That’s irony. It’s situational irony, one of the three types of irony. Today, we’re going to define irony, talk about the three types of irony (plus a few extras), and look at some examples of irony.
Let’s get started with a deceptively simple question:
What is Irony?
Irony is when you expect one thing, but you get the exact opposite of that thing in reality. In writing, irony is a literary device, a tool that writers use to create conflict. Writers create conflict, through irony, by highlighting the difference between expectation and reality.
Irony is an underrated literary device because it’s incredibly useful. Irony can inject comedy, tragedy, or increasing tension into any scene. The effect of irony depends on the type a writer uses, and there are many, many types of irony. However, there are three major types of irony which are:
Scroll down to read more about those types of irony.
What irony is not:
Irony is often mistaken with things like bad luck or coincidence. If I plan a picnic and there is a torrential downpour the day of my picnic, that’s not ironic; that sucks for me. Now, if I plan a picnic for the first day of Spring and I discover it’s snowing, that would be ironic. The first day of Spring is expected to be bright and sunny, and a snowstorm would be the opposite of that expectation.
Sarcasm is ironic, but it’s in its own category. When you use sarcasm, you say the opposite of what you mean, but sarcasm is specifically used to mock or attack.
And, finally, we have the following three items that fall into a kind of an irony grey area:
- Rain on your wedding day.
- A free ride when you’ve already paid.
- And the good advice that you just didn’t take.
None of these instances fall under the strict definition of irony- expecting one thing and getting the opposite. BUT, Alanis Morisette says these things are ironic. Who are we to argue with her?
The Three Types of Irony
What is Dramatic Irony?
Dramatic irony is when the reader or audience of a fictional story knows something that the characters don’t. This type of irony only exists in fictional stories for obvious reasons. But, writers use dramatic irony all the time because it’s so valuable.
Dramatic irony can create tension in a scene. Think of the last time you saw a horror movie where the protagonist was about to enter a room, and the film shows you that the killer is in that room. Because you know something the character doesn’t, you are instantly worried about that character. You want to yell, “STOP, DON’T GO IN THERE!”
Consequently, dramatic irony is one of the leading causes of movie-goers kicked out of theaters.
But dramatic irony isn’t just for thriller movies because writers use this irony for humor too. It’s a classic sitcom scenario. Maybe a man overhears his wife talking about her friend’s pregnancy but misses the context and assumes his wife is the one who’s pregnant. Hilarity ensues.
What is Verbal Irony?
Verbal irony is when a speaker says something different from what they mean. The reality of the situation often contrasts with or is the opposite of what the speaker is saying. If we’re in the middle of a hurricane, and I look out the window and say, “my, what lovely weather we’re having.” That’s an example of verbal irony.
Verbal irony is different from lying because the speaker expects the listener to understand they do not mean what they say. In everyday life, people use verbal irony as a form of humor usually.
In literature, verbal irony is a way to add depth or subtext to dialogue. It is often dull for audiences to have characters say exactly what they mean. To make things interesting, writers will have characters say something different than what they mean. Still, with context, the audience will know what the character means.
A word on Sarcasm
Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, but not all verbal irony is sarcastic. We only call verbal irony sarcastic if it has a cutting or insulting tone. So, all sarcasm is verbal irony, but not all verbal irony is sarcasm.
Verbal Irony: Overstatement and Understatement
When you are overstating or understating a situation, you are using verbal irony.
If you found a quarter on the street, picked it up, and said, “guess I’ll retire early,” you’re overstating the situation because a quarter is not enough money to retire off of.
If you found a suitcase full of hundred dollar bills and said, “this should be enough for the weekend,” you’re using understatement. Obviously, that’s enough money to get you through a couple of days.
Stable vs. Unstable Irony
Stable and unstable irony are two forms of verbal irony.
Stable irony is when the speaker’s alternate meaning is clear to their audience. In other words, if it’s nasty weather and someone says, “what a beautiful day we’re having.” you know they mean the opposite.
Unstable irony is when a speaker makes an ironic statement. But, the audience is not able to determine the speaker’s true meaning. With unstable irony, the audience knows what the speaker is saying is untrue. However, they don’t have enough context to infer the speaker’s true meaning.
What is Situational Irony?
Situational irony is when an event or outcome takes place that is the opposite of what a person expected. Situational irony often happens in reality, and a good example comes from Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451.
Fahrenheit 451 is a novel about burning books, and one of its central themes is censorship. Almost immediately after it was published, parents sought to ban Bradbury’s work from school curriculums. One mother complained that Bradbury used the lord’s name in vain throughout the text. So, a text about censorship that falls victim to undue censorship would be an example of situational irony.
Beyond the Three Types of Irony
What is Comedic Irony?
Comedic irony is when a writer uses any of the three forms of irony for a humorous effect. People often use sarcasm for a laugh, and so it can be considered comedic irony. In an article for Infobloom, writer J.E. Holloway highlights one of my favorite uses of comedic irony.
Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice opens with the line, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Holloway points out that this statement is ironic because it is the women in the novel concerned with finding a husband.
What is Tragic Irony?
Tragic irony is a form of dramatic irony in which the reader knows something terrible will happen, but the characters don’t know. The writer infers that something terrible is going to happen before the tragedy occurs. This form of irony is tragic because the reader, or audience, can do nothing to stop the characters from rushing headlong into their doom.
Shakespeare uses tragic irony to significant effect in the prologue of Romeo & Juliet when the text tells you the two teenagers will be dead by the end of the play. As the play’s events unfold, the audience is aware that our two protagonists are heading toward an untimely demise.
What is Socratic Irony?
Socratic irony is an argumentative technique where the speaker pretends dumb about a subject. The speaker asks their opponent questions that they know the answers to to get the other person to reveal their ignorance.
Ok, there’s a scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation. A group of cadets attempts a dangerous flight stunt, fail, and one of them dies. The other cadets try to cover up the accident by blaming it on a mistake by the dead cadet. Picard, the show’s protagonist, discovers the truth and uses Socratic irony against one of the cadets in the following scene:
Oh, and if you’re not a Star Trek fan, there was that one time on The Office when Michael Scott used Socratic questioning on Dwight:
What is Cosmic Irony?
Cosmic irony describes when a higher power, fate, God, or the universe, intervenes to subvert expectations. Some people call cosmic irony the irony of fate. An example of this type of irony comes from the movie Pulp Fiction.
Two hitmen, Jules and Vincent, are surprised when their target comes out of hiding and fires several bullets directly at them. Every bullet misses even though the shooter is only a few feet from Jules and Vincent. Vincent dismisses this as dumb luck, but Jules firmly believes that God stopped the bullets.
The text implies that Jules was right about this divine intervention because Vincent is later killed after Jules walks away from their violent partnership.
Examples of the Three Types of Irony
Example of Dramatic Irony
We have a fantastic example of dramatic irony in the third act of the film Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling, our protagonist, follows a lead to a house in Ohio. The audience knows that the man who owns this house is Buffalo Bill, the killer Clarice has been tracking. However, Clarice thinks she’s talking to an ordinary, maybe peculiar, homeowner.
Clarice begins to interview the man. The tension builds as she slowly realizes that she is face to face with a serial killer. Because the audience knows that the man is Buffalo Bill, we are terrified for Clarice’s safety. Will she catch Buffalo Bill or become his next victim?
Example of Verbal Irony
An example of this would be when Han Solo is about to be frozen in carbonite. Princess Leia tells Han, “I love you,” Han replies, “I know.” The audience knows that Han means, “I love you too,” but it’s more in character for Han to give a sarcastic, cocky response.
Leia repays Han for his ironic response in the next movie, Return of the Jedi. The couple is cornered by a stormtrooper when Leia reveals she has a blaster hidden beneath her tunic. Han says, “I love you,” and Leia replies, “I know.” How’s it feel, Han?!
Example of Situational Irony
Gone Girl, both the book and the film, has one of the most extraordinary twists of all time. That twist is also a fantastic example of situational irony. During the first act of the movie, the audience is presented with a situation. A woman, Amy, is missing, likely murdered. There is a poorly cleaned crime scene in her home, police her blood in the kitchen, and all signs point to her husband, Nick, as the murderer. Her journal reveals a very abusive marriage, there is a comprehensive life insurance policy, and she was unexpectedly pregnant.
It’s painfully apparent that Nick murdered his wife. The only question is, what did he do with her body? Except…
At the midpoint, the film’s POV character shifts to Amy. She’s alive and well, and she has framed her husband for her murder. I don’t know if you saw this coming, but I literally threw the book across the room.
Why Use the Three types of Irony?
To create a plot twist.
Because if you do it well enough, it will shock your reader in a good way and make them throw your book across the room. Situational irony is the perfect tool for setting up your readers’ expectations, then shocking them with something they didn’t expect.
At first, Gone Girl is the story of a murdered wife. We think Amy is undoubtedly dead, and the only question is who killed her. So many clues point to Nick, but a savvy reader knows that this is probably a misdirect, and they’re looking for clues to who the real killer is. When we get the truth- that Amy is not a victim but a tormenter, it’s the opposite of what anyone expected.
The story’s plot twist completely subverts your expectations, and it’s what makes Gone Girl an iconic novel.
To develop tension
Like what we see at the climax of Silence of the Lambs, dramatic irony creates worry in the mind of your readers. If you’ve given your reader a likable, relatable protagonist, they will want that hero to succeed. Then, when you put that character in danger, show the reader the threat but keep it hidden from the character; your readers will not be able to put the story down.
To insert humor
Finally, using verbal irony like sarcasm is a simple way to insert a little humor into your story. Use irony, or ironic statements, to give your characters a little personality, maybe a little acerbic bite.
Pin the Three Types of Irony!
Continued reading on irony: