Situational irony is a fantastic way for writers to set themselves apart from the norm. You are likely tired of the age-old clichés and don’t want your writing full of them. You know what I’m talking about: The romance protagonist literally bumps into her future husband or the hero describes himself in the mirror on page one.
These have been done time and again and are arguably no longer acceptable. In this article, I teach you to use situational irony to better your writing and keep your readers refreshed rather than nodding along, thinking, “I saw that coming.”
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Situational Irony: Defined
Situational irony (one of three core literature ironies) is when the unexpected happens. Not to be confused with a plot twists, situational irony functions best when the focus of the situation is on the ironic.
For instance, consider a doctor getting sick, a writer not knowing how to text their crush, or a naval aviator being afraid of heights. While doctors do get sick, writers can struggle knowing what to write, and pilots can experience a fear of heights, it is a bit ironic. So, how do you use situational irony, and why?
How And Why It’s Used
In literature, situational irony’s purpose is multifaceted. As a writer, you may want to surprise your readers with a “gotcha” moment that also teaches a valuable lesson. Or, you may want to simply choose one of these two options: Surprise or teach a lesson.
Unlike plot twists, writers use situational irony by combining a circumstance with a twist that ends up ironic. Consider the example of the naval aviator. Before his flights he always feels anxious, his heart races, and his palms feel sweaty.
Naturally, you may think he’s nervous about his job (and rightly so), but imagine a twist where he’s relatively fearless as it relates to his job but finally pinpoints it’s the physical heights that scare him.
Examples: Real And New
Now that you understand how situational irony is used and its purpose, it’s time to jump into some examples. Of course, with examples come spoilers, so read at your own risk!
#1 – Jerry B. Jenkins, Margo
Twenty-one time, New York Time bestselling author, Jerry B. Jenkins, based his debut novel on the following idea: “A judge tries a man for a murder the judge committed.” This is a standout example of situational irony, used in fiction.
#2 – The Guardian
Consider Ashtin Kutcher’s role in the 2006 Coast Guard film. Trained to rescue victims from extremely dangerous conditions, Kutcher’s character, Jake, nearly drowns during one of his rescues.
#3 – Romeo and Juliet
A classic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet is a dark example of situational irony. When Romeo believes Juliet is dead, he kills himself. Then Juliet wakes up from her drugged sleep and discovers Romeo, dead. She commits the same end. The anticipated, happy ending instead closes in tragedy.
#4 – The Night Agent
Netflix’s The Night Agent is a thriller series based on an FBI agent’s journey from monitoring an emergency line to flushing out a mole. The ironic part is, the mole is in the White House. The build-up to this situational irony is slow, steady, and will keep you watching episodes.
How Not To Use It And When Not To Use It
Situational irony, like most literary devices, has its purposes. When choosing to employ this literary device it’s important to ask yourself a few questions:
- Will situational irony best move my story forward?
- Do I have both the situation and the ironic twist I need?
- Why does it make sense, or not make sense, to use it?
Once you have a clear understanding of your answers, you can jump into either writing situational irony into your story or using a different device in its place.
The Don’ts Of Situational Irony
Writing is such a subjective art form that it’s difficult to tell someone to never use situational irony in X situation. However, how you use it, or don’t use it, does dramatically influence the tone of your story.
Imagine if Romeo had discovered Juliet was simply drugged. The ending could’ve been happy. In the same way, imagine if the mole in The Night Agent happened to be some random person working alone, completely disconnected from the White House. There goes much of the tension.
When deciding whether to use or not use this type of irony, ask yourself the following:
- What type of tone will this give my story?
- How would it impact the character arc of my hero?
- Do I want an ironic twist?
If Sherlock Holmes botched a mystery, lives were lost, and the story ended, much of the premise of his character would be voided. Before choosing to use this type of irony, be sure it aids your character arcs, adds to the tone of your story, and you truly want an situationally ironic twist, not just a plot twist.
The Do’s Of Situational Irony
One of the biggest situational ironies of fiction comes from Harry Potter. When He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Names attempts to kill Harry and change from a mortal to an immortal, the opposite happens—he is destroyed. It’s not until several books into the series that Voldemort comes back.
This situational irony sets the trajectory for the entirety of the series. Imagine if Rowling had chosen a different repercussion for Voldemort’s action. What if he actually did become stronger? The situation would no longer be ironic, and the mystery and uncertainty tied to “the boy who lived” would not exist.
Let’s go back to our example of The Guardian. The irony of the situation the character of Jake found himself in aided the story in several ways.
From the beginning Jake’s character was portrayed as a competent and strong student. Although seemingly arrogant and not the most respectful of his superiors, he was set up as one of the best in his class.
For the writers to then show Jake nearly drowning on a mission revealed the gravity of his job. If Jake, one of the best of the best, could nearly lose his life trying to save others, his heroism is no small feat.
Using situational irony to teach a lesson can do wonders for your storytelling. Imagine the scene without the seriousness of Jake’s situation. The tension would be slim and the heroism of Jake’s character would not be as obvious.
Your Next Step To Storytelling
One of the best ways to learn how to use literary devices well is to read, watch, and listen to as many examples of it as you can. Whether you read the books I mentioned above, watch movies or television shows, or listen to audiobooks, take note of how the writers use situational irony.
You’ll likely be surprised how quickly you pick up on it once you start looking. Once you feel you have a good grasp of how it’s used and when it’s not used, brainstorm where you could use it in your own writing.
How could it add to your character arcs or keep readers on their toes? Situational irony is often a process of discovery, so enjoy the journey. And don’t forget, like everything, it takes practice!