Unlocking the Universal Power of Cosmic Irony
Ever feel like a situation is so utterly unexpected—the exact opposite of what you’d planned for—that the universe must be conspiring against you? That it’s all gotta be one big cosmic joke?
Welcome to cosmic irony, a storytelling device that doesn’t just make for an intriguing tale but also taps into chilling questions about human limitations.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve seen cosmic irony play out a thousand different ways in ancient literature, modern films, and everywhere in between. Odds are, you’ve also enjoyed the shocking twists, ominous foreshadowing, and profound themes that often come with this device.
But what is cosmic irony, exactly? How is it different from other types of irony? Should you use it in your own stories? If so, how do you pull it off well?
You’re about to find all those answers right here. You can also look forward to a ton of cosmic irony examples to clarify the concepts you’ll learn. By the end, you’ll be a master of cosmic irony… assuming the fates are on your side.
So let’s forge ahead.
What is Irony?
Cosmic irony is a form of irony, so we’ll nail down that definition first.
Irony occurs when something subverts expectations or appearances. When you use this literary device—whether through ironic words or ironic circumstances—you reveal tension between appearances and reality. It’s a tool for surprising your audience, exploring deeper truths, and exposing inconsistencies.
In other words, it’s a lot of fun.
To illustrate what irony looks like in action, we’ll explore the different types in a bit. For now, we’ll focus on the specific type you came here to learn about.
So What is Cosmic Irony?
Cosmic irony occurs when an unseen force or higher power creates an outcome that’s different from—or the opposite of—what you would expect.
For example, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is considered cosmic irony. You wouldn’t expect a story about vivacious young lovers to end in voluntary death. But that’s exactly what happens. (Sorry for the spoiler, but it has been out for over 400 years.)
That’s what makes the story ironic. The cosmic part comes in with the idea that this pair was “star-crossed.” This was always going to be their fate, because their love was too strong to be denied and the hatred surrounding them too toxic to defeat.
In fact, human limitations are an essential aspect of cosmic irony. The higher power in question might be a deity, the universe, or Mother Nature. Readers might actually see the gods discuss a character’s fate or they might simply have the sense that an unseeable force is in control.
Either way, it all comes down to the idea that the humans in the story have less control over their destinies than they’d like to believe.
Cosmic Irony Examples
The most popular cosmic irony examples in Western culture come from Shakespeare and ancient Greek plays. Those old timey guys loved to get the gods involved or blame things on the cosmos.
But you don’t have to go back centuries to find examples of this device. It shows up in modern literature and film all the time. We just don’t usually bring in a Greek chorus to explain which god is toying with the main character.
Here are cosmic irony examples that might help you improve your ability to spot this tool in the stories you consume:
Okay, this is a classic, but it’s a classic for a reason. Oedipus finds out he’s destined to kill his father and marry his mother. That’s not chill. That’s a fate anyone would try to outrun.
But of course, we’re operating in cosmic irony here, where a person’s destiny is beyond their control. By attempting to outsmart the prophecy, Oedipus only manages to fulfill it.
Titanic is a tale about people who are 100% certain they’ve made a truly unsinkable ship. There’s also a young couple willing to rebel against societal expectations and upend their lives to be together. Sounds like a recipe for an enjoyable romp across the ocean.
But nature interferes, proving itself to be a stronger force than human will and ingenuity. The unsinkable ship sinks and the inseparable couple is torn apart.
Twelve-year-old Josh makes a wish to become big, then wakes up as a 30-year-old man. After initially crushing it as a grown-up, he begins to miss his childhood.
In short, he gets exactly what he wants and comes to regret it. That’s an ironic outcome. And that lesson was given to him by whatever cosmic force oversees unplugged Zoltar machines.
Cosmic Irony vs. Other Types of Irony
So how does cosmic irony fit in with all the other types of irony?
This gets interesting because the various forms do a lot of overlapping and nesting within one another. For a more in-depth look at each type of irony, you can check out this article. For now, we’ll just explore the types that might coincide with cosmic irony.
Situational irony - Situational irony occurs when a situation or outcome is different from what you’d expect. As you can probably guess from that definition, cosmic irony is a type of situational irony.
Dramatic irony - This is when the audience holds crucial information that a character does not. You sometimes see moments of dramatic irony within a cosmically ironic storyline, as ignorance can lead to a character’s ill-fated decision.
When Romeo drinks the poison, believing Juliet to be dead, that’s dramatic irony. The audience knows she’s actually fine and Romeo is making a huge mistake.
Comic irony - Try not to be shocked when I tell you that comic irony is when irony is funny.
We usually think of cosmic irony as tragic, but it can be good for a laugh, too. In Liar Liar, some unseen, wish-fulfilling force makes it impossible for Fletcher to fib, which is the one skill his livelihood (supposedly) depends on. His compulsive truth-telling is good for a lot of laughs and a decent number of cringes.
Tragic irony - This is when the ironic twist is, well, tragic. As I just mentioned, we see this a lot in the realm of cosmic irony. Romeo and Juliet. Oedipus Rex. Titanic. You get the idea.
Using Cosmic Irony in Your Own Writing
As a narrative device, cosmic irony offers an opportunity to explore themes concerning destiny versus human control. It can reveal your characters’ limitations, horrify your readers with the injustice of a cruel fate, or delight them with a clever reversal.
In other words, incorporating cosmic irony into your writing can be fun, especially if you know what you’re doing. Let’s make sure you’re off to a solid start with a few pointers and some words of warning.
Tips for Pulling It Off
Dig into character weaknesses - Every multi-dimensional character has weaknesses, fears, and flaws. Any one of them can be their downfall in a cosmic irony situation, though writers typically choose to nail their protagonist with one really big flaw—their fatal flaw.
When you’re writing cosmic irony, let this weakness be the very thing that leads your character right to their ironic fate. Maybe they’ll learn something and overcome their flaw as a result. Or, as is the case in tragedies like Oedipus Rex, maybe it’ll be too late.
Subvert expectations - Remember that in order for it to be cosmic irony, the outcome can’t just be tragic or clever. It needs to be pointedly different from—and probably the opposite of—whatever one would generally expect.
Tie in your central theme - As is the case with any literary device, you want to have a reason for using cosmic irony. Consider how you might use this tool to highlight the theme of your story.
Do you want to explore the risks of humanity attempting to play God? Play with the question of fate versus free will? Suggest that love is or is not a choice?
Pitfalls to Avoid
Irony for irony’s sake - As we’ve established, cosmic irony is fun. It’s also clever, engaging, and emotionally impactful… if you use it with intention.
Resist the temptation to have the universe toy with your characters’ lives willy-nilly. Don’t toss some irony of fate into your story just to stun or devastate your audience. Have a reason for doing it.
Overexplaining the higher power - You don’t always have to clarify the cosmic influence in your irony. You can, if that’s the kind of book you’re writing. But you don’t have to. Look at examples of cosmic irony that reflect the way you want to approach this device.
Do you want your characters to be under the influence of a vague, unspecified magical force like in Big and Liar Liar? Are you writing a fantasy and want to be clear about which god, witch, or warlock is pulling the strings? Is the higher power Mother Nature?
Passive characters - While it’s true that cosmic irony is a stellar tool for exploring the limitations of mortal beings, you never want to let your characters just sit back and have fate happen to them.
Let them make choices. Have them fight against their so-called fate or push to create their own destiny. Allow them to take actions that make them complicit in the ironic twist, however accidentally.
Just don’t leave them sitting on their hands while the universe orchestrates their future.
Creating Cosmic Irony Through Other Literary Devices
Now that I’ve given you a bunch of advice on how to write cosmic irony, I’ll go ahead and admit that this storytelling feature isn’t actually something you just sit down and write. It’s something you weave into your story to gradually create the sense of character limitations and an interfering universe.
You hint at cosmic irony through dialogue. You show it through a surprising turn of events. You craft prose that subtly raises questions of fate and free will.
And you bring it alive with literary devices like these:
Foreshadowing is when you hint at future events through dialogue or narration. It’s an extremely common tool for establishing cosmic irony because it creates an immediate sense that something dreadful (or good, but usually dreadful) lies ahead.
You can learn how to master foreshadowing right here.
Symbols can be a subtle but effective way to acknowledge the unseen forces at work in your novel and emphasize major themes.
In Titanic, the ship itself represents human hubris—a masterful construction destroyed by immovable nature in less than three hours.
Light and darkness are constant symbols throughout Romeo and Juliet, with the characters who are driven by love regularly associated with daylight and sunshine while those filled with hate are often seen in darkness. This drives home the idea that as much as the two lovers are trying to write a romance, this is unavoidably a story about the cosmic tension between love and hate.
Never underestimate the power of a solid metaphor. This literary device occurs when you compare two unrelated things by stating that they are the same. It’s a great way to not only paint a more vivid scene but also encourage your readers to see things in a specific light.
Consider the difference between showing them a “pale stranger” at the door and describing the same person as an apparition. The second is more likely to spark the notion of an unseen force behind the stranger’s arrival.
What Does All This Do for the Reader?
Now for the question all writers care about most:
How does using this tool enhance the reading experience?
Honestly? It might not. Cosmic irony isn’t the best call for every story. But if it happens to be a good fit for your tale, here’s what your reader stands to get out of it:
A deeper sense of both powerlessness and awe - Cosmic irony moves us to question the extent of our control and reconsider the world with a deeper sense of wonder.
The thrill of a surprise - To be clear, readers aren’t always shocked by the twist of cosmic irony. Both Oedipus Rex and Romeo and Juliet give away the ending pretty early in the story. But even when we know what’s coming, irony has a way of sparking our fascination.
More engaged thought - All irony has a way of getting our wheels turning, including cosmic irony. Because the outcome flies in the face of our expectations, we want to make sense of it.
We start examining the pieces, trying to understand how the characters ended up where they did, marveling at the fact that even though it’s a complete reversal, it all checks out.
In fact, that’s how you know you nailed your cosmic irony—when you’ve created an unexpected outcome that includes the interference of the universe and somehow still ends up feeling like it’s completely logical and was always inevitable.
Managing the Complicated Business of Cosmic Irony
Hopefully, you have a clearer grasp of cosmic irony than you did when you first got here. But understanding this concept is one thing. Executing it is quite another.
If I may offer one last tip:
Let Dabble help you brainstorm, plan, plot, draft, and revise your tale of irony. This tool has everything you need to stay organized, motivated, and on track through every phase of the writing process. The Plot Grid is especially great for tracking all your tricks for directing reader expectations before you hit them with the ironic twist.
The best part is, you can access every single feature for free for fourteen days. All you have to do is follow this link and start a free trial. You don’t even have to enter a credit card!
Just sign up and get Dabblin’.
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