What Is Irony and How Should You Use it?
Last updated: 04/18/2019
Many of us probably know it when we see it, but few of us can articulate what irony really is — much less identify the different types. However, it’s important for writers to understand this literary technique, as it can really add depth to your story — so long as you’re not using it in a hackneyed or incorrect way (like the much-debated Alanis Morissette song).
In this article, we will define and analyze the various types of irony and how to use them in your writing. These types include dramatic, situational, and verbal irony, along with their offshoots and related terms. We’ll also give examples of each type in literature, films, and other media. Finally, we’ll debunk the concept of "rain on your wedding day” — which might be inconvenient but certainly isn’t ironic.
What is irony?
Irony is a storytelling tool used to create a contrast between how things seem and how they really are beneath the surface. The term comes from the Latin word ironia, which means “feigned ignorance.” The three main types used in literature are dramatic, situational, and verbal, as mentioned above.
People often conflate irony with sarcasm, coincidence, or bad luck. While these concepts can have ironic characteristics, they’re not interchangeable with irony.
So for example, if you run to catch the bus and miss it by two seconds, that’s not ironic — unless the reason you’re late is because you were bragging about how you wouldn’t miss the bus. This creates an unexpected and comic contrast to what would otherwise just be an unfortunate situation. More on that later.
To learn about other literary techniques, check out these articles on Chekhov's Gun, motifs, and metaphors. And don't forget about rhetorical devices, either — techniques used in literature to appeal to a certain part of our sensibilities.
Types of irony
Now we’ll get into the three major types of irony, as well as their various stages, subdivisions, and examples of how they can be used. First off is dramatic irony (aka Shakespeare’s favorite).
1. Dramatic irony
Dramatic irony occurs when readers are informed of significant information that key characters are unaware of — basically, where we know what will happen before they do. Tension rises between the point of revelation (when the reader first receives the secret insight) and recognition (when the characters are finally brought into the loop). Again, Shakespeare’s a big fan of this one — even his comedies, such as Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are full of dramatic irony.
Example of dramatic irony: The Hobbit
Dramatic irony doesn’t necessarily need to underline the entire storyline of a novel; it can also be used briefly to add punch to certain scenes. The Hobbit contains a perfect example of this, when Bilbo happens upon the ring while lost on a mountain. He puts it in his pocket and soon afterward encounters Gollum.
At this point, readers understand the significance of the ring and its importance to Gollum. However, Gollum does not yet realize he has lost the ring, and Bilbo doesn’t yet know who the ring belongs to. For this reason, the scene where Bilbo and Gollum engage in a game of riddles becomes even tenser for the audience.
The stages of dramatic irony
Now that you have a solid handle on what it is, let’s break down the three stages of dramatic irony. We’ll use another Shakespearean example, this time from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (which has an ever-so-slightly different ending from the original play), to illustrate these stages.
Stage 1. Installation: the information is presented to the audience, but withheld from the characters. Toward the end of the movie, Juliet fakes her own death to get out of marrying Paris. She sends a message detailing her plans to Romeo, but he never receives it — so the audience knows Juliet isn’t really dead, but Romeo does not.
Stage 2. Exploitation: the author uses this imbalance to heighten curiosity and tension. Romeo finds out about Juliet’s “death” and buys poison in order to join her in the afterlife. The audience doesn’t yet know whether he will go through with it, however, and they're filled with anguished curiosity.
Stage 3. Resolution: the characters find out the truth. In the Baz Luhrmann version, Romeo drinks the poison by Juliet’s side, but she awakens from her deep slumber just before he dies. Hence he does, eventually, find out the truth that she was never really dead — but of course, he’s already consumed the poison, which means all they have time for is one final kiss.
In this case, the dramatic irony is also tragic irony; the characters in Romeo + Juliet find out the truth just moments too late to stop something horrible from happening. Heartbreaking, no? 💔
How else is dramatic irony used?
To induce feelings of fear or suspense
Alfred Hitchcock succinctly explains dramatic irony by describing two scenes:
- In the first, four people are sitting at a table, having a conversation, when a bomb explodes.
- In the second, we witness an anarchist enter the room, place a bomb under the table, and set it to explode at 1pm. Moments later, we watch as four people sit at that table and begin a conversation. There is a clock on the wall that reads 12:45pm.
In the first scene, we experience momentary surprise. In the second scene, an innocuous conversation becomes charged with prolonged suspense — dramatic irony.
For some truly impressive suspense-building, check out this list of the 50 best suspense books of all time.
To stir up sympathy for a character
In the movie Ten Things I Hate About You, high school senior Kat is cold and reserved. After Patrick agrees to woo Kat in exchange for payment from a fellow classmate (who wants to date her sister), we see her warm to him. However, even as they fall for each other, we know that the truth about Patrick’s initial interest in Kat will inevitably come out — consequently, we feel sympathy for her as the reveal draws closer.
To create comical situations
In the season eight finale of Friends, Joey picks up Ross’s coat and a ring tumbles out — a ring intended for Ross to propose to Rachel. When Joey kneels down to pick it up, Rachel assumes he is proposing… and accepts.
Hilarity ensues as misunderstanding and miscommunication take the day. But of course, ignorance can only remain bliss for so long. Once exploitation is underway, resolution must follow soon after. A character who remains oblivious for too long can start to seem unrealistic to readers, and tension turns to frustration; always keep this in mind when using dramatic irony in a story.
2. Situational irony
When the truth contradicts an expected outcome, it's situational irony — also known as “the irony of events.” Again, just to clarify, irony is not the same as "coincidence" and "bad luck." If you buy a new car and then accidentally drive it into a tree, that is both coincidence and bad luck. However, if a professional stunt driver crashes into a tree on their way home from receiving a “best driver” award, that is situationally ironic.
Example of situational irony: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Throughout the seventh book of the Harry Potter series, readers follow Harry on his quest to find and destroy Voldemort’s six Horcruxes. At the end of the novel, we find out that there is a seventh Horcrux, so to speak — and it's Harry himself.
This unexpected twist also comes with the ironic realization that in order for Voldemort to die, Harry must sacrifice himself. So he willingly goes to meet Voldemort — and his own death. But when Voldemort uses the killing curse on Harry, it has the opposite of his desired effect. Harry lives while the Horcrux dies, bringing Voldemort that much closer to his greatest fear: mortality.
In this way, Harry being a Horcrux is actually a double case of situational irony. Harry believes he must die in order to vanquish his enemy, whereas Voldemort thinks he is killing Harry, but he’s actually killing himself. Mind = blown, right?
How else is situational irony used?
To create a good ol’ fashioned twist
In Roald Dahl’s A Lamb to the Slaughter, a woman kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb. When the cops arrive, she cooks the lamb and feeds it to them, effectively making them eat the evidence. Bizarre, huh?
From this example, we see how to draw strong reactions from readers by presenting them with carefully executed twists and turns. Because of the inherent element of surprise in situationally ironic storylines, they're often employed in the thriller, crime, and mystery genres.
To emphasize themes
Steering readers to an unexpected destination in a story can emphasize a novel’s theme or moral lesson. For this reason, authors often deploy situational irony in fables or morality-focused stories, such as "The Tortoise and the Hare." The unexpected outcome teaches us that slow and steady wins the race.
Situational irony: related terms
1. Cosmic irony
Cosmic irony comes closest to what Alanis Morissette sings about in “Ironic.” Basically, it’s a version of situational irony in which it seems as though the universe and/or some greater being intentionally contrives ironic situations, possibly for their own amusement.
Of course, humans pretty much always get themselves into these situations — but every so often there’s such an extreme case of irony that we can’t help but label it as cosmic. Take the real-life example of the RMS Titanic: she was the largest ship afloat in 1912, the year she set sail, and was universally hailed as “unsinkable.” That is, until she hit an iceberg and sunk to the bottom of the sea… en route her maiden voyage.
Yes, we all know logically that God didn’t sink the Titanic — anyone who’s seen the movie can testify that the iceberg didn’t just appear out of thin air. (Sidenote: Leo DiCaprio and his romantic counterparts certainly encounter a lot of irony.) However, doesn’t it seem like something God would do in order to punish humans for their hubris? Hence why we might describe it as cosmic irony: a grand and almost unbelievable twist of fate.
2. Poetic justice
Put simply, this is when someone gets what was coming to ‘em. You often see it at the end of movies: a villain falls off a roof (Hans Gruber in Die Hard), perishes in a fiery trainwreck (Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins), or gets sucked into a plane turbine (Syndrome in The Incredibles).
Poetic justice is retribution. It’s atonement. It’s not exactly irony, though, unless the way in which it happens somehow relates to the person’s story — for instance, if a particularly greedy villain (or anti-villain) were to spend their whole life searching for treasure, only to suffocate in a pile of gold.
Also, it doesn’t necessarily have to be death, but poetic justice usually involves some kind of punishment for someone bad. Occasionally it might be a reward for someone who’s done good, but this is pretty rare. In any case, poetic justice is a good device to keep in mind alongside irony, since they sometimes come hand-in-hand.
3. Verbal irony
The third and final major type of irony is verbal irony, in which the intended meaning of a statement is the opposite of what is said. Sound similar to sarcasm? Well, they’re not exactly the same: sarcasm is almost always used with the intent to denigrate someone or something, while irony isn’t necessarily. However, some would argue that sarcasm is simply one type of verbal irony, along with “overstatement” and “understatement” — which we’ll quickly cover right now.
As you might expect, ironic understatement creates contrast by undermining the impact of something, though the thing itself will be rather substantial or serious. For example, in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield casually says, “I have to have this operation. It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.” Of course, Holden is lying here, which is why he can be so cavalier; nevertheless, the overall sentiment of this statement remains ironic.
On the other hand, ironic overstatement makes something small sound like a much bigger deal, in order to emphasize how minor it actually is. Say you bought a scratch card for a multimillion dollar lotto, and ended up winning a grand total of $5. If a friend then asked you whether you won anything and you said, “Yeah, total jackpot” — that’s ironic overstatement.
Note: this is not to be confused with hyperbole, in which the overstatement isn’t ironic, but stems from wanting to convey just how massive something is — even if isn’t actually that big. (E.g. “I’m so tired, I could sleep for a million years.”)
More examples of verbal irony
1. Romeo and Juliet
One of literature’s greatest instances of verbal irony can be found in the very first lines of ol’ reliable (at least in terms of irony examples): Romeo and Juliet.
Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
Though the first line may sound respectful, we can see by the end of this verse that Shakespeare doesn’t mean both households are alike in their great dignity. Instead, these lines imply that both households are equally undignified.
And this introduction does more than elicit a chuckle from those who are familiar with the play; it also sets the tone for the entire story, notifying first-time readers that not all that glitters is gold. While both families might technically be considered nobility, their shared inability to act nobly toward one another ultimately leads to tragedy.
2. Common phrases
Here are some things you might hear in everyday conversation that perfectly exemplify verbal irony. Many of them are similes comparing two completely unalike things, and/or instances of sarcasm.
- “Clear as mud”
- “Friendly as a rattlesnake”
- “About as much fun as a root canal”
- “Thank you so much” (about something bad)
- “Fat chance!”
How else is verbal irony used?
To provide insight into a character
While characters are usually not in control of the ironic situations that befall them, verbal irony very much depends on the character’s awareness — they intentionally state something that contradicts their true meaning. As a result, it can be used to reveal a little more about a character’s personality or motives.
This does rely on well-planned timing and context, however. A character needs to be properly developed, and the tone of a scene needs to be precisely conveyed, in order for dialogue to come across as ironic. Otherwise, there's a danger that the character’s statement may go over the reader’s head or be taken literally.
For comic relief
Of course, sometimes writers use verbal irony simply to be funny. Whether it’s to highlight a sarcastic character (see: Chandler Bing) or to lighten tension during a dark or difficult scene, verbal irony typically does a very good job of providing comic relief.
Hopefully you now understand the general purpose of irony: to create a contrast between appearances and underlying truths. When done properly, this can rather significantly alter a reader’s interaction with, expectations of, and insight into a novel. Indeed, irony is a hallmark of some of the most interesting and sophisticated writing in this day and age.
Remember to use it with care, however, as it requires people to read between the lines. Irony can add a lot to the reading experience, but shouldn’t throw us so far off course that we can’t find our way to the truth. With that in mind, go forth and be ironic! (In your story, we mean.)
What’s your favorite example of irony? Let us know in the comments!