Bear with me, but I’d like to bring up Alanis Morissette’s much-critiqued song “Ironic.”
I don’t think I’ve ever heard it, or at least I can’t remember it off the top of my head. When I think of it, all that comes to mind are countless people listing her and that song as the quintessential example of using irony wrong.
But how did she get it so wrong? And how can we avoid making her mistakes?
Let’s talk about irony, the different types of irony, and how we can use them correctly when writing a novel, a short story, or really any type of writing. It’s one of the most used literary devices, so let’s take some time to explore.
What is irony?
Irony is when something happens that’s not expected, often to a funny or dramatic effect. If we’re expecting one thing because of the context or circumstance, but something else happens, that’s ironic.
Sometimes, people conflate inconvenience with irony. In Alanis Morissette’s song, for example, she lists a string of circumstances that are awfully troublesome for the narrator–however, there’s nothing about the circumstance that makes us expect something different to happen.
Basically, with irony, you’re given a setup. You expect a certain payoff, but you get something different. Without the setup, it isn’t ironic.
There are three main types of irony to keep in mind:
1. Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is when the reader knows something that the characters don’t.
For example, in Tangled, we know that Rapunzel is the lost princess from the intro sequence. The drama in the show doesn’t come from us finding out whether she’s the lost princess–it comes from us wanting her to know that she’s the lost princess, realize her own self-worth, and toss Mother Gothel out the window.
2. Situational Irony
Situational irony is when something has the opposite effect from what was intended. Remember the setup and payoff I talked about?
Here’s how this looks here: the setup is the situation and the expectations and context that situation provides. The payoff is the way those expectations are subverted.
Let’s look at this example: A fire department burned to the ground last night.
The setup here is the location. A fire department is a place expected to fight fires–that’s their goal. The payoff or punchline is that they burned to the ground–you’d think that a fire department would be the last place to burn, since their whole business is fighting fires.
3. Verbal Irony
Verbal irony is when someone says something that isn’t what they mean, or that’s the opposite of what they mean.
The most obvious example of this is sarcasm. If you’re having a terrible day and someone asks you how you’re doing, you might say “Oh, I’m doing awesome.”
You’re saying the opposite of how you feel–probably in a tone that conveys that you don’t mean it–to mean that you feel awful.
How to Use Irony in Writing
Now that we understand how irony works, let’s talk about how to use it in our own work.
1. Maximize Characterization
Irony can be super useful when it comes to characterization. Say you’ve got a teenaged character who constantly uses verbal irony–a thick layer of sarcasm when writing the dialogue says a lot about who they are and how they view the world. Irony is often funny, so it’s a great chance to show off a character’s sense of humor, too. Again, this is a great opportunity for character development.
You might also have a character reacting to their setting in an unexpected way.
Maybe your romantic hero doesn’t realize he’s wandered into a super toxic relationship, but the reader knows. This might show us that he’s naive, which tells us a lot about him.
2. Dramatic Irony for Tension
Dramatic irony is a great way to add tension to your story. If the reader knows something the character doesn’t, that on its own creates a page-turning dynamic.
The reader wants to know if the character is going to find out in time, or find out at all! Remember our Tangled example? One of the biggest hooks in that movie is watching for that moment Rapunzel realizes she’s the lost princess–that tension carries through the whole movie.
3. Don’t Go Overboard
Irony is definitely a useful tool, but it can get stale pretty quickly. Make sure you keep your characters and their believability at the forefront of your mind while you’re writing. An excessively snarky tone can get grating after a while, and a super obvious case of dramatic irony can become frustrating for a reader–why don’t the characters know? It’s so obvious!
This can take some trial and error. Outlining your book and having some friends read your work will go a long way in preventing these sorts of issues.
Examples of Irony in Writing
Still not totally sure how this ‘irony’ thing plays out on the page? Lucky for you, I’ve put a little reading list together.
1. Romeo & Juliet
Romeo & Juliet contains one of the best-known examples of dramatic irony in literary history. At the end of the play, Juliet fakes her own death with the intention of running away with Romeo. The audience knows she’s not really dead, but Romeo doesn’t, so when he sees her, he thinks she’s killed herself. He then kills himself–Juliet wakes up, sees what he’s done, and kills herself in turn.
The tension in this sequence comes from the dramatic irony. The audience knows Juliet isn’t actually dead, so they’re biting their nails and tearing out their hair and just begging Romeo to wait, like, a few hours. And when he kills himself, they’re dreading the moment Juliet does wake up.
2. The Myth of King Midas
King Midas is a greedy old king who just wants money. He thinks having more money will make him happier, and he’s given a ‘gift’ which causes everything he touches to turn to gold. Great! Money is his favorite! This will only turn out well for him!
Of course it doesn’t–he ends up destroying everything he loves, and while he’s surrounded with wealth, he’s more miserable than ever. We expect from the setup that more money will make him happy, but he ends up sad. Ironic!
3. Maximum Ride
Bear with me once more, but Maximum Ride: School’s Out Forever by James Patterson also employs irony.
For one, our narrator, Max, is chock-full of verbal irony. She’s snarky and funny, and any given page of the Maximum Ride series is guaranteed to have an example of verbal irony.
But there’s another place I’d like to look in this particular book. For those unfamiliar: this series follows a group of bird-kid mutants on the run from “The School,” which created them and wants to put them back in their laboratories. In “School’s Out Forever,” they hide from “The School” by enrolling in… an actual school.
What’s your favorite use of irony in books or movies?
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