Everyone knows what irony is, right? Well, it’s actually a bit more complex than it looks.
There are four different kinds of irony: dramatic, situational, verbal, and comedic. Each one has its own complications, but after we break them down, it will be easier to see how you can use them in your own stories.
Dramatic irony, also known as tragic irony, is when the reader knows something that the characters don’t. Romeo and Juliet is the go-to example because right off the bat, Shakespeare tells the audience about the “star-crossed lovers” the story centers on. We know they’re fated to die, but the characters themselves are unaware of their impending demise.
Here’s an example of how you can use dramatic irony:
The officer walked down the hallway, sweeping her flashlight this way and that and grumbling under her breath. She didn’t hear the footsteps behind her that mimicked her own across the creaking wooden floor. She didn’t notice the monster creeping just inches away from her. She wouldn’t notice until it was too late—he had made sure of it.
Thanks to the third-person omniscient of this example, the reader can see both the monster right behind the officer and her unawareness of the danger. It builds suspense because it makes the reader hold their breath, waiting for the officer to discover what they already know and dreading the monster’s attack.
Play around with perspective and point of view while writing dramatic irony. Having a multi-layered narrative where some characters know more than others can make character interactions more exciting as they act on their limited understanding.
Situational irony is what often comes to mind when we think of irony. It’s when the opposite of what the reader expects to happen occurs. A great literary example is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In the story, firefighters are the ones who burn books and houses instead of putting out fires. Since the concept is a core part of the plot, situational irony is present throughout the story rather than being a one-off event.
Here’s another example of long-term situational irony:
Chaos reigned as the aliens invaded the city. I could only watch as people were sucked into the sky, pulled higher and higher until they disappeared into the awaiting spaceships. My feet refused to budge even as the ship’s glowing green radius hovered closer and closer.
Just as the beam licked my toes and I began to feel gravity reverse, something slammed into my back. I cried out and rolled across the pavement. I crashed into a pile of trash bags on the side of the road. It was only then I saw what had hit me.
Mr. Haggerty floated through the air, his arms and legs still extended from his leap. Mr. Haggerty, who’d never believed I’d seen a UFO. Mr. Haggerty, who constantly complained about hating his job working with us “sci-fi obsessed brats.” And now, Mr. Haggerty, the worst science teacher, gave me the same grimace as he was taken by the aliens instead of me.
This example would be found towards the end of the story. It uses situational irony because Mr. Haggerty is the last person the reader would expect to save the protagonist from aliens. He turns out to be less antagonistic than originally thought, which makes the turn of events all the more shocking.
However, situational irony can be misconstrued as coincidence:
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were political adversaries, but they both died within hours of each other on the 4th of July in 1826. How ironic!
That isn’t ironic. Them happening to die on the same day is merely coincidental, not a subversion of expectations. The irony needs to be on purpose, not following happenstance or a logical chain of events.
Experiment with situational irony by creating scenarios that range from short and simple to long-term. The longer you pull out the irony, the more emotion can be released when the twist is revealed. Make sure each event is clearly ironic and not just coincidental by establishing a throughline for the actions that unfold.
Verbal irony is when a character says something other than what they mean. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice famously 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.” This is verbal irony because the story goes on to be about a woman looking to marry a rich man.
There are actually a few types of verbal irony. One that immediately comes to mind is sarcasm:
The teenager stomped out of the room, swearing up a storm. “He’s quite the gentleman,” his father said.
However, sarcasm and verbal irony aren’t always the same thing. Sarcasm is a specific kind of verbal irony where the purpose is to criticize something. Verbal irony doesn’t have to involve mockery or self-deprecation:
The children streamed out of the classroom and into the fenced playground. “We’re free!” they cried.
This is an overstatement; the kids know they aren’t actually free, but they claim to be and exaggerate how awful their school is.
Dylan whistled at the mountains of garbage piled in his friend’s room. “Oh. That’s a tiny issue.”
This is an understatement; Dylan is downplaying how much of a problem the mess in his friend’s room will be for him.
Like sarcasm, overstatements and understatements also fall under verbal irony. The main idea of verbal irony is that the speaker knows what they’re saying isn’t what they mean. For example:
“I’m fine,” Lindsey insisted, trying to hide her limp.
Here, Lindsey is trying to convince others that she’s okay. She’s saying what she intends to mean, so it can’t be verbal irony.
Try working with different kinds of verbal irony. It can be a fun way to show your characters’ personalities and opinions because it can show their sense of humor or their attitudes toward others.
Comedic irony is a bit trickier to pin down. It’s irony that is played for comedic effect. It usually isn’t included as one of the main ironies because it often coincides with the other three, especially situational and verbal.
It can be as simple as this:
The villain laughed maniacally as he sicked his dogs on the hapless hero. The Rottweilers leapt at the hero, knocking him to the floor and assaulting his face with endless, slobbery kisses. The villain stared, slack-jawed as his loyal dogs begged for belly rubs.
This is situational irony because the villain and reader expect the dogs to attack the hero, but instead, they adore him. It’s comedic irony because of how silly the situation ends up being. Since it’s played for laughs, the suspense is traded for hilarity.
With all that said, it’d be quite ironic to not try your hand at some irony in your writing! Here are some more sources that explore irony:
About the Author: Phoenix Grubbs is a senior at Michigan State University double-majoring in English with a creative writing focus and Professional and Public Writing. They love all things grammar and aspire to be a published author and copyeditor.