Irony is one of the most vital parts of storytelling. You’ll find irony at the center of much of our comedy, but it’s also a huge part of the dramatic tension in our stories. Understanding the types of irony available can be a great tool in your storytelling.
If you get a sense of what it is and how to use it, you’ll have a ton of new opportunities for growth when writing your novel!
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what irony means, so much so that the word’s common use has started to mean something closer to ‘sarcastic’ or ‘unexpected’ than its original meaning. And that’s okay–words change over time, and people adapt to new meanings as language develops.
However, if you want to use irony as a tool in your work, it’s important to be clear what it is. In this article, we’ll take you through the main types of irony, give you the definitions of each, and then walk you through a few examples.
What is Irony?
Irony is when something happens which wasn’t expected. Usually, the thing opposite to what we expected to happen happens, and this is either funny or dramatic.
So, in a simple example: if you told your friend your pet died and they responded with “that’s awesome!,” that’s an example of irony. We would expect a friend to be caring and compassionate, and if they were instead unsympathetic or joyful about your loss, that would be the opposite of what we expected.
This could have a few different outcomes. Maybe they’ve said “oh, that’s awesome” in a joking tone, and it made you laugh. Maybe they’ve said “that’s awesome!” in a flippant way, and it’s created some tension between you and your friend.
See what I mean? When something is ironic, it’s different than the thing we expected to a dramatic or comedic effect.
Now, sometimes, people think ‘irony’ just means that it wasn’t expected. And that isn’t necessarily true–irony is only really satisfying when it plays off audience expectations. In the example we used, we could have the friend reply by saying something random, but it probably wouldn’t be funny or dramatic. It would just be random.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what irony is, let’s go over the three main types of irony.
The 3 Types of Irony
In general, there are 3 types of irony–these types all have a ton of subtypes with their own tropes, expectations, and examples, but for the sake of keeping things streamlined, we’re only going to touch on the big three.
1. Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is when the audience has information that the characters don’t. In a play, maybe a scene concerning the protagonist took place without the protagonist actually being here. As a result of this, the audience has information on the other character’s intentions without that character themselves being aware of them.
This makes for a real nail-biter in thriller and horror stories. Because we know danger awaits the character, we’re on the edge of our seats hoping the character figures things out in time to avoid peril.
Similarly, this can make for some funny situations! If we have information a character doesn’t have, it can be funny to watch them make a fool of themselves figuring it out or blundering in their misunderstanding.
2. Situational Irony
Situational irony means that the outcome of an action was the opposite of what we expected. A story is headed in one direction, but then the outcome twists in the opposite way.
This one can be tricky for people to get the hang of, but the main thing to keep in mind is that the situation went differently than you’d expect. We’ll give some examples in a minute to really hammer home how this plays out and what it looks like in comedy and drama.
3. Verbal Irony
Verbal irony is perhaps the most often used on a day to day basis! We generally refer to it as ‘sarcasm’ in everyday lingo. Verbal irony is when we say something, but it means the opposite thing, or something different.
This type of irony can be tricky to grasp for some people, since it relies on decoding people’s tone. The way a person says things is often the way we can discern whether they meant what they said, or whether they meant it ironically.
If you tell me that your day sucked and I tell you “oh, sweet,” you might be offended if you don’t pick up on my tone. If a frustrated kid tells you homework is “super fun, as usual,” it might be tricky to see that he’s being ironic if you don’t hear his tone, see him roll his eyes, or watch him stomp back to his room.
Because of this, when you’re writing a novel, it’s important not to forget those nonverbal cues when you’re using verbal irony. Give us enough to let us know the character means the opposite, and we’re good to go!
Examples of the 3 Types of Irony
Now that we’ve gone over the three types of irony, let’s take a look at some specific examples of each.
1. Dramatic Irony
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet (and much of Shakespeare’s work) is full of all different kinds of irony, but we’re going to focus on the famous final scene here.
At the end of the play, these two star-crossed lovers are on the escape to live happily ever after from their disapproving families. Juliet takes a potion that’s meant to mimic death–the audience knows she’ll wake up, but then in comes Romeo, who has no idea.
Romeo thinks Juliet is dead, since he doesn’t know what the audience does. As a result, he kills himself, unwilling to live in a world without Juliet. The tension here comes from that piece of information Romeo is missing, but we have–we’re screaming at him not to do it, because when Juliet wakes up, she’s heartbroken, and takes her own life as well.
Shrek is an absolute masterclass in the use of irony for comedic effect, but it also uses irony for dramatic tension.
At one point in the movie, the audience learns that Fiona, the princess he’s rescued, is actually an ogre. Shrek doesn’t know this, though. When Fiona is being distant and saying things like ‘who could ever love a beast,’ the tension comes from the fact that we know what she means, and Shrek doesn’t.
Another example of dramatic irony in Shrek happens when Fiona tells Donkey to go get a plant that has blue flowers and red thorns. Fiona quickly tells Shrek (and the audience) that this was just to get rid of him, so it’s funny to watch Donkey freak out trying to pick out a blue flower with red thorns. The task is meaningless, so his concern is funny.
2. Situational Irony
Yup, it’s Shrek again! All of the Shrek movies, again, are full of irony for comedic effect. In Shrek 2, we have a fairy godmother who appears to help Fiona with all of her romance issues. The irony is that the fairy godmother actually acts as a villain and tears Fiona apart from Shrek (spoiler)–we expect a fairy godmother to be sweet, kind, and helpful, and in the movie, she’s anything but.
The use of Prince Charming in the film is very similar. We have a cultural understanding of who Prince Charming is–he’s sweet, he’s handsome, and he’s the perfect man. But in Shrek 2, Prince Charming is beautiful… but he’s awful. He’s a villain, and that’s the ironic twist.
In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is told at the beginning of the play that he is fated to marry his mother and murder his father. He is, understandably, super grossed out about it, and spends the whole play trying to avoid this fate. In the end, though, he does kill his father and marry his mother. Icky! But also, ironic.
The Myth of King Midas
King Midas is another classic example of situational irony. King Midas is greedy and wants riches and power, so when he gets a gift that makes everything he touch turn to gold, we expect that to be awesome, right? Well, not really–it’s all fun and games until you turn your loved ones into gold statues.
We expect King Midas to be wealthy and happy beyond his wildest dreams. Instead, he’s wealthy and miserable–that’s situational irony.
3. Verbal Irony
Last Shrek example, I swear, but seriously, these movies are great if you want to learn more about irony!
In the first movie, Shrek goes to the castle to tell Lord Farquaad to get the fairytale creatures off his land. When he goes, he’s told he has to compete in a tournament to have the chance to have his request heard. The tournament is dangerous, and Farquaad gives a pep talk before it starts, saying “some of you may die, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”
This is ironic. For one, he’s trying to seem noble and selfless, when obviously he isn’t. His words technically imply that he’s virtuous, but we understand it differently.
A Modest Proposal
In Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Swift offers a solution to the issue of starvation facing Ireland. He begins with completely rational, factual information about the state of affairs in Ireland, but then he takes a detour and says that we should eat Irish babies to solve the starvation crisis.
What makes this ironic? Swift is obviously not actually saying that we should, definitely, seriously, eat babies. He’s instead pointing out how absurd it is that a solution hasn’t already been found, and making a comment on the way Irish people were treated under British rule.
Additionally, a proposal suggesting we eat babies is anything but modest!
Pride and Prejudice
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, she opens with this famous line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Basically, she’s saying that everyone knows that men are super invested in having wives and are very concerned with finding one.
This is ironic because throughout the entire rest of the book, we see the opposite–women are immensely concerned with finding a husband, since society has put them in a position where they depend on their husbands and fathers for survival.
Do you have any other examples of irony from your favorite books, TV shows, or movies? Let us know in the comments!
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