Most of us are familiar with irony in our day to day lives; for instance, if you buy a brand new car only to have it break down on its very first ride (situational irony). Or if someone tells you they love your new dress, when what they actually mean is that it flatters absolutely no one and wasn’t even fashionable in their grandparent’s time (verbal irony). Irony makes its way into our conversations all the time, but how do you take those rascally twists of fate and use them to create a powerful story?
Irony finds its way into almost all storytelling, from short stories and novels to stage plays, film, poetry, and even sales marketing. Its distinctive subversion of expectation keeps readers excited and engaged, hanging on to your story until the very last page.
What is irony?
Irony as a literary device is a contrast between the expectation in a story and what really happens. This can be a contradiction between what someone says and what they mean, between what a character expects and what they go on to experience, or what the reader expects and what actually happens in the plot. In all cases there’s a twist that keeps your story fresh and unpredictable. By using different kinds of irony—and we’ll look at the five types of irony in literature down below—you can manage the reader’s expectations to create an engaging and memorable story.
Why does irony matter in a story?
Irony is something we all experience, sometimes without even recognizing it. Using irony in your writing can encourage readers to look at your story in a brand new way by making them question what they thought they knew about the characters, the theme, and the message that your story is trying to communicate. Subverting the expectations of both your readers and the characters who populate your story world is one of the best ways to convey a bold new idea.
Aesop used this idea very effectively in his moralistic children’s tales, like “The Tortoise and the Hare.” In that story, the two title characters are set up to race each other to the finish line, and it seems inevitable that the hare will beat the tortoise easily. By subverting our expectations, however, the author encourages the reader to think about what the story means and why it took the turn that it did.
When writing a story, you as the author get to decide how much information is available to your reader and how much information is available to your characters. Sometimes you might want your reader and your characters to experience life’s surprises side by side; other times you might want your readers to know more than your characters do, and to watch with bated breath as they hurtle towards the conclusion. Both can be very effective.
The 5 types of irony
While all irony functions on the basis of undermining expectations, this can be done in different ways. Let’s look at the different types of irony in literature and how you can make them work in your own writing.
1. Tragic irony
Tragic irony is the first of two types of dramatic irony—both types always show the reader more than it shows its characters. In tragic irony, the author lets the reader in on the downfall waiting for the protagonist before the characters know it themselves.
This is a very common and effective literary device in many classic tragedies; Shakespeare was a big fan of using tragic irony in many of his plays. One famous example comes at the end of Romeo and Juliet, when poor Romeo believes that his girlfriend is dead. The audience already knows that Juliet, having taken a sleeping potion, is only faking. Carrying this knowledge with them as they watch the lovers hurtle towards their inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion makes this story even more powerful.
Another example of tragic irony is in the famous fairy tale “Red Riding Hood,” when our red-capped heroine goes to meet her grandmother, oblivious of any danger. The reader knows that the “grandmother” is actually a vicious, hungry wolf waiting to devour the girl, red hood and all. Much like curling up with a classic horror movie, the reader can only watch as the protagonist comes closer and closer to her doom. This type of irony makes the story powerful, heartbreaking, and deliciously cathartic.
2. Comic irony
Comic irony uses the same structure as dramatic irony, only in this case it’s used to make readers laugh. Just like with tragic irony, this relies on allowing the reader to know more than the character. For example, a newly single man might spend hours getting ready for a blind date only to discover that he’s been set up with his former girlfriend. If the reader knows that both parties are unaware of what’s waiting for them, it makes for an even more satisfying conclusion when the two unwitting former lovers finally meet.
TV sitcoms love to use comic irony. In this medium, the audience will often watch as the show’s characters stumble through the plot making the wrong choices. For example, in the TV series Friends, one pivotal episode shows a main character accepting a sudden marriage proposal from another—even though the audience knows the proposal was made unintentionally. By letting the audience in on the secret, it gives the show an endearing slapstick quality and makes the viewer feel like they’re a part of the story.
3. Situational irony
Situational irony is when a story shows us the opposite of what we expect. This might be something like an American character ordering “shop local” buttons from a factory in China, or someone loudly championing the ethics of a vegan diet while wearing a leather jacket. When most people think about ironic moments in their own lives, they’re probably thinking of situational irony. It’s also one of the building blocks of the twist ending, which we’ll look at in more detail below.
The author O. Henry was a master of using situational irony. In his short story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” two desperate men decide to get rich quick by kidnapping a child and holding him for ransom. However, the child in question turns out to be a horrendous burden and, after some negotiating, the men end up paying the parents to take him off their hands. This ironic twist is a complete reversal from the expectation that was set up at the beginning.
4. Verbal irony
Verbal irony is what we recognize most in our lives as sarcasm. It means saying the opposite of what you mean or what you intend the reader to understand, usually by either understatement or overstatement. This can be used for both tragic and comic effect.
For example, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony performs a funeral speech honouring the character Brutus. He repeatedly calls him “noble” and “an honourable man,” even though Brutus was actually involved in the death of the man for which the funeral is being held. Mark Anthony’s speech shows the audience that he actually holds the opposite regard for the villain, though he is sharing his opinion in a tactful, politically safe way.
Verbal irony is particularly common in older and historical fiction in which societal constraints limited what people were able to say to each other. For example, a woman might say that it was dangerous for her to walk home all alone in the twilight, when what she really meant is that she was open to having some company. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the two younger girls wail that they’ve hurt their ankles, hoping to elicit some sympathy from the strong arms of the men.
5. Socratic irony
Socratic irony is actually a little bit like dramatic irony, except that it happens between two characters rather than between the characters and the reader. This type of irony happens when one character knows something that the other character doesn’t.
It’s a manipulative technique that a character uses in order to achieve a goal—to get information, to gain a confession, or to catch someone in a lie. For example, police officers and lawyers will often use this technique to trip someone up: They’ll pretend they don’t know something and ask questions in order to trick someone into saying something they didn’t intend.
Usually Socratic irony is used in a sly and manipulative way, but not always; a teacher might use the Socratic irony technique to make a child realize they know more about a subject than they thought they did, by asking them leading questions or to clarify certain points. Like verbal irony, Socratic irony involves a character saying something they don’t really mean in order to gain something from another character.
Is irony the same as a plot twist?
The “plot twist” is a stylistic way of using situational irony. In the O. Henry example we looked at above, the author sets up a simple expectation at the start of the story: the men will trade in the child for hard cash and walk away happy. Alas, life so rarely goes according to plan. By the time we reach the story’s conclusion, our expectation of the story has been completely twisted around in a fun, satisfying way.
Not all situational irony is a plot twist, though. A plot twist usually comes either at the end or at the midpoint of your story. Situational irony can happen at any time as major plot points, or as small, surprising moments that help us learn something about our characters or the world we live in.
You’ll often see plot twists being compared to dramatic irony, because they have a lot in common. Both rely on hidden information and the gradual unfurling of secrets. The difference is that with a plot twist, the reader is taken by surprise and given the new information right along with the characters. With dramatic irony, the reader is in on the trick and they get to watch the characters being taken off guard.
Both dramatic irony and plot twists can be used quite effectively in writing. It’s up to you as the writer to decide how close you want your readers and your characters to be, and how much you want them to experience together.
How to use irony in your own writing
One of the great advantages of irony in literature is that it forces us to look at things in a new way. This is essential when it comes to communicating theme to your reader.
In literature, theme is the underlying story that’s being told—a true story, a very real message or idea about the world we live in, the way we behave within it, or how we can make it a better place. In order to get that message across to our readers, we need to give them a new way to engage with that story. The innate subversion of expectations in irony is a wonderful way to do this.
For example, the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” uses irony very effectively to communicate its theme: don’t judge a person by their appearance. Based on our preconceptions of this classic type of fairy tale, we would go in expecting the handsome young soldier to be the hero and the beastly monster to be the adversary. We might also expect the beautiful girl to be helpless and weak-spirited, waiting for her father to come in and save her. In this story, however, it’s the girl who saves her foolish father, the handsome soldier who shows himself to be the true monster, and the beast who becomes a hero to fight for those he cares about.
Not only do these subversions make for a powerful and engaging story, they do something very important for our readers: they make them ask themselves why they had these preconceptions in the first place. Why do we expect the handsome soldier to be noble and kind? Why do we expect the worst from the man with the beastly face before even giving him the chance to speak? It’s these honest, sometimes uncomfortable questions, more than anything else, that make the theme real for your reader.
When looking for ways to weave theme throughout your story, consider what preconceived ideas your reader might be coming into the story with that might stand in the way of what you’re trying to say. Then see if you can find ways to make those ideas stand on their head. This will make the theme of your story more convincing, resonant, and powerful.
The one mistake to never make when using irony in your story
I’m going to tell you one of life’s great truths, which might be a bit difficult for some people to wrap their heads around. Embrace it, and you’ll leave your readers feeling a lot happier and more satisfied at the end of your story. Here it is:
You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room.
Have you ever been faced with a moment of irony or a plot twist in a story and thought, “but that doesn’t make any sense”? Or realized that a surprising new piece of information rendered the events of the plot, or the effective slow build of characterization, absolutely meaningless? These moments happen because the author became so enamoured with the idea of pulling a fast one on the reader, revealing their cleverly assembled sleight-of-hand with the flourish of a theatre curtain, that they forget the most important thing: the story.
When using irony in your work, the biggest mistake you can make is to look at it like a shiny, isolated hat trick. Nothing in your story is isolated; every moment fits together as a thread in a cohesive tapestry. Remember that even if an ironic turn is unexpected, it needs to make sense within the world of your story. This means within the time and place you’ve created—for instance, you wouldn’t create an ironic twist in a medieval fantasy by suddenly having a character whip out a cellphone—but also within the world of your characters.
For example, if it turns out your frail damsel in distress is actually a powerful sorceress intent on destroying the hero, that’s not something you can just drop into your story unannounced like a grenade (no matter how tempting it might be). You need to begin laying down story seeds for that moment right from the beginning. You want your reader to be able to go back and say “ohhh, I see what they did there. It all makes sense now.”
Irony—in particular the “twist ending”—can be fun, surprising, and unexpected, but it also needs to be a natural progression of the world you’ve created.