Do you remember the song “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette? That song always made me a little bit crazy every time I heard it, because just about everything mentioned in the song as an example of irony was not actually ironic.
It’s like rain on your wedding day…
It might be a disappointment or a hassle, but rain on a wedding day (without more information) won’t fit into any of the categories of irony.
My apologies if “Ironic” is one of your favorite songs! Feel free to argue me in the comments, or, fellow grammarphiles, to share your stories of the personal pain these lyrics caused you. ;D
There are three common types of literary irony (definitions from wikipedia.com):
Verbal irony: A statement in which the meaning that a speaker employs is sharply different from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed.
Situational irony: When the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect.
Dramatic Irony: When words and actions possess a significance that the listener or audience understands, but the speaker or character does not.
All of these forms of irony are tools a writer can use to enhance his or her storytelling. In this post I want to focus on Dramatic Irony.
Dramatic Irony refers to a situation where the reader or viewer has information that the characters do not have. This generally leads to misunderstandings for the characters, while the reader watches and waits for the truth to be revealed.
Well-known examples of Dramatic Irony would include:
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows that Juliet is not dead but Romeo believes that she is.
In virtually every comic book/graphic novel/film adaptation involving a hero with a secret identity—DC’s Batman, for instance—the audience knows the hero’s identity while most characters do not.
In There’s Something About Mary, the character of Ted is questioned by police about a murder, but he thinks he’s being questioned about picking up a hitchhiker.
In the first Toy Story, Buzz thinks he’s a space ranger while the audience knows he’s a toy.
The wide variety in the above list of examples – From Romeo and Juliet to Toy Story – inspires me as a writer. It suggests that dramatic irony isn’t only useful for one type of story or to create a single effect.
Here are five ways you can use the power of dramatic irony in your own writing:
- Ratchet up the tension by allowing your unknowing character to make mistakes he wouldn’t make if he could see the full picture. (Romeo and Juliet is a strong example of this. Shakespeare’s Macbeth also uses dramatic irony. The audience knows that Macbeth is plotting to kill Duncan, while Duncan praises and trusts Macbeth.)
- Reveal a character’s true feelings by allowing them to speak their mind to someone they don’t recognize. (Batman would be an example of this, or any comedy involving mistaken identity, such as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which Olivia and Orsino are both fooled into believing that Viola is a boy named Cesario.)
- Create empathy by showing a character’s vulnerability in circumstances they don’t fully understand. (In Toy Story, Buzz’s naïve misunderstanding of his own identity endears him to us. This also happens in horror movies when we know the killer is hiding in the very place a character runs to for safety.)
- Add humor. (One example would be the scene from There’s Something About Mary, described above. Also, in Home Alone, the robbers misunderstand the movie clips to comic effect.)
- Grab the reader and keep her turning pages to see the fireworks when the unknowing character finds out the truth. (Stephen King’s Carrie uses dramatic irony this way. The reader knows Carrie is going to be humiliated at the prom and we keep reading to see what will happen when she learns the truth. In Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the reader knows that Katniss is unaware that Peeta’s feelings for her are real, and we eagerly read on, waiting to see how she will react when she finds out.)
Things to watch out for when creating dramatic irony:
Don’t irritate your reader by undermining your character’s credibility. Once the audience knows something, they will begin to believe it’s obvious. It’s difficult to interest a reader in a character that seems to overlook the obvious. A character blind to the truth becomes uninteresting quickly.
Don’t be unintentionally funny by having your character act against logic just to keep the dramatic irony intact. This happens in thrillers or horror films when a victim runs up the stairs in search of safety and people in the audience snicker. Illogical characters, like those blind to the obvious, can not only be irritating, they can add humor where you don’t want it.
Have you ever used dramatic irony in your fiction? Do you like to discover it when reading? Can you think of other effects it can have, (or better examples?) Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Sarcasm is an ironic or satirical remark that seems to be praising someone or something but is really taunting or cutting. Sarcasm can be used to hurt or offend or can be used for comic affect.
- I’m trying to imagine you with a personality.
- I work 40 hours a week to be this poor.
- Is it time for your medication or mine?
- Well, this day was a total waste of makeup.
- Whatever kind of look you were going for, you missed.
- Not the brightest crayon in the box now, are we?
- Nice perfume. Must you marinate in it?
- Earth is full. Go home.
- Suburbia: where they tear out the trees and then name streets after them.
- This isn’t an office. It’s Hell with fluorescent lighting.
- I majored in liberal arts. Will that be for here or to go?
- Don’t bother me. I’m living happily ever after.
Impact of Tone of Voice
Sarcasm sometimes depends on the tone of voice. These examples of sarcasm are replies to people or situations and would only be sarcastic with a sarcastic tone of voice:
- When something bad happens - That's just what I need, great! Terrific!
- When you expected something to happen, especially after warning someone about it - Well what a surprise!
- When someone says something that is very obvious - Really Sherlock, No! You are clever
- When someone does something wrong - Very good, well done, nice!
- When something happens that you don’t want or need - That's just what we need!
Sarcastic Quotes by Famous People
- "Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go." - Oscar Wilde
- “Sometimes I need what only you can provide: your absence." - Ashleigh Brilliant
- "I feel so miserable without you, it's almost like having you here." - Stephen Bishop
- "I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception." - Groucho Marx
- "The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech." - George Bernard Shaw
- "I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." - Mark Twain
- "Weather forecast for tonight: dark." - George Carlin
- "You see, money's not everything in life is it? But it keeps you in touch with your children..." - Johnnie Casson
- "The early bird may get the worm, but it's the second mouse who gets the cheese." - Steven Wright
- "What's on your mind, if you will allow the overstatement?" - Fred Allen
- "I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific." - Lily Tomlin
- "Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." - Mark Twain
- "I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me." - Fred Allen
- "Children really brighten up a household - they never turn the lights off." - Ralph Bus
- "Honesty is the best policy -- when there is money in it." - Mark Twain
Now you see lots of different examples of different kinds of sarcasm and sarcastic comments.