The Delightfully Unbearable Suspense of Dramatic Irony

Abi Wurdeman
December 12, 2023

As a reader, you know the glorious angst of watching characters make decisions in ignorance.

They don’t know that the killer is in the bedroom closet or their unforgiving sibling never got the apology letter they sent or their new bride is only pretend dead so they probably shouldn’t grief-drink that poison.

This is dramatic irony—one of the most effective tools out there for crafting a story that seizes your audience’s attention and keeps them emotionally invested in the outcome.

But like any literary device, it falls apart when you treat it like an easy gimmick. If you want to create dramatic irony in your novel, you’ve got to be thoughtful about it. You need to know:

  • What it is, exactly
  • How it’s been used in other works of fiction
  • The role dramatic irony plays in storytelling
  • How to apply it to your own work
  • How to harness literary techniques to craft effective dramatic irony
  • What the reader experience is like when you do all this well

And I’ll just do the big reveal right now: you’re about to learn all of those things.

Understanding Dramatic Irony

A person reads a book beside a window in a dark room.

Dramatic Irony Definition

With dramatic irony, the audience knows crucial information that a character (or characters) is not aware of.

It’s a powerful tool for creating tension and building suspense. The reader eagerly waits for the character to learn the truth, vainly hoping that they won’t make a huge mistake out of pure ignorance in the meantime.

Dramatic irony as a concept originally comes from ancient Greek drama, when this tool was often used to tragic effect. One of the most famous examples is Oedipus Rex. The audience realizes early on that Jocasta is Oedipus’s real mom and has to watch him make devastating error after devastating error trying to outsmart his fate.

How Dramatic Irony Differs From Other Forms of Irony

All irony plays with the tension between how things appear and the way they actually are. But there are a lot of ways to do that, so we have tidy little categories to clarify what we’re talking about when we talk about irony.

These categories can be easy to mix up, so let’s have a quick chat about what differentiates the three most popular forms: dramatic irony, situational irony, and verbal irony.   

Dramatic Irony vs. Situational Irony 

A bike ironically parked in front of a "no bicycles allowed" sign.

In situational irony, the outcome differs from what is expected. In many cases, it’s actually the opposite of what one would expect.

What makes it different from dramatic irony is that the focus is on how surprising the situation is, not on who knows and who doesn’t. In many cases, the audience is experiencing the twist alongside the characters.

That said, dramatic and situational irony can overlap. Mutual death is not the expected outcome of a teenage love story—not for an audience or for the lovers themselves—but that’s how Romeo and Juliet ends. 

In addition to that overarching situational irony, there’s a prologue that straight-up says, “a pair star-crossed lovers take their life.” This creates a dramatic irony situation; the audience knows this young couple is designed for tragedy while Romeo and Juliet are blissfully obvlivious.

Fun fact: Romeo and Juliet is also an example of tragic irony—a form of dramatic irony where the audience knows that a character’s behavior will yield devastating results.

Dramatic Irony vs. Verbal Irony

A sign that reads "flooded" sits in the desert.

You’ll never believe this, but verbal irony is irony that is verbal. While dramatic irony focuses on the not-so-hidden truth of circumstances, verbal irony centers on the not-so-obscured meaning of words.

Basically, this type of irony is when what is said is different from what is meant, but the speaker (or writer) intends for the true meaning to be understood.

Like if you pulled a scorched pie out of the oven and said, “Beat that, Martha Stewart.” It would be clear to everyone that you’re making a joke; this pie would never have made the cover of Living.

Examples of Dramatic Irony

A stack of books with their spines facing away.

When you’re creating dramatic irony in your own story, it helps to study instances of it that have worked really well. That’s true for any literary device. It’s why everyone says you have to read a lot to become a great writer.

To that end, here are some solid examples of dramatic irony:

The Truman Show - Truman’s entire life is a television show and everyone knows it but him. The suspense in this movie comes from waiting to see when and how his entire sense of reality will be destroyed.

Poker Face - In every episode of this upside-down mystery series, the audience knows who committed the murder before the sleuth does. This means frequently watching her interact casually and unknowingly with a cold-blooded killer.

The Odyssey - Odysseus dresses up as a stranger and attempts to seduce his wife, Penelope, in a test of her faithfulness. (I can only assume their marriage therapist prescribed this.) The reader is on edge waiting to see what will happen because Penelope doesn’t know what they know. 

Crazy Rich Asians - The reader watches Nick bring Rachel home to Singapore, knowing she has no clue she’s with the country’s most eligible bachelor and entering a world where she’ll be seen as unworthy. 

Role of Dramatic Irony in Storytelling

A person stands in a bookstore, holding an open book and staring straight ahead.

Now, what exactly is the point of all this? Why not just keep readers and characters on the same page?

Dramatic Irony Builds Suspense 

Ignorance means your characters might walk into dangerous situations unprepared, torpedo good relationships, or make the worst decisions of their lives. Your reader is biting their nails, hoping your character finds the truth before it finds them.

It Deepens Characterization

When human beings have limited knowledge, they fill in the gaps with their assumptions. Those assumptions reveal a lot about your characters’ fears, weaknesses, and backstories.

Dramatic Irony Adds Humor 

For example, William Shakespeare didn’t just lean on tragic irony. He used dramatic irony in his comedies, too. Characters fool each other with fake identities, love spells, and other forms of chaos. Meanwhile, the audience always knows the reason for the madness.

Creating Dramatic Irony in Your Story

A hand writes on a sheet of paper beside an open laptop.

If you want to create some dramatic irony in your own story, it helps to know the three stages of dramatic irony. You don’t have to linger for long in any one stage, but it is essential to get them all in. 

Three Stages of Dramatic Irony

Preparation - This is when you drop some knowledge on your reader. Let them in on the secret(s) your character isn’t privy to.

Suspension - Now it’s time to have fun with your character’s ignorance. What choices do they make because of what they don’t know? What assumptions are they working with? How long do you plan to keep them in the dark?

Be clear on what you want your reader to feel during this section. Are you using dramatic irony to build suspense? Add humor? Foreshadow tragedy?

Resolution - Like all things, dramatic irony must come to an end. What happens when your character learns the truth? What’s the consequence of their ignorance?

Writing Tips for Building Dramatic Irony

A person in an orange cardigan types on a laptop.

Now that you’ve laid the groundwork for your dramatic irony, let’s construct a solid frame.

Consider Different Ways to Keep Your Reader in the Loop

How will you share privileged information with your audience? Will you simply show them the truth in a scene where the oblivious character isn’t present? Will one of your other characters lay it out in dialogue?

You can also use flashbacks for this purpose. Even foreshadowing! A nod to the doom and gloom to come puts the reader in the know, even as your characters ignorantly and blissfully skip right into the next chapter.  

Keep it Believable

Believable within the world of your story, that is. If you’re writing a farce, it’s totally acceptable for your protagonist to spend all three acts oblivious to the coat rack caught in the sash of their jacket. If you’re writing literary fiction, find a different source of dramatic irony.

Establish the Stakes 

Dramatic irony only works when the reader understands what your character’s ignorance could cost them. Make the stakes clear and high from the very beginning. 

Get Your Readers Attached to the Character 

This is another move to ensure your audience actually feels the tension of the dramatic irony. They should care what happens to your characters.

It doesn’t even have to be the oblivious character that they’re worried about. It could be the person who’s in danger of physical or emotional harm because of someone else’s ignorance.

Impact of Dramatic Irony on Reader Engagement

A person wearing glasses looks at a computer screen and bites down on a pencil nervously.

We’ve talked about what dramatic irony does for your story. But what does it do for your reader? Well…

Dramatic irony heightens suspense and anticipation - Your audience presses ahead through the story, eager to see when your character will learn the truth and what decisions they’ll make in the meantime.

It inspires a deeper emotional investment in the outcome - Dramatic irony gives your reader something specific to worry about. It invites them to get caught up in their own mess of what-ifs and hope the truth arrives swiftly.

Dramatic irony creates a sense of privilege - Your reader is an insider. They know things your own characters don’t know. It’s really like they’re part of the story.

And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To help your audience disappear inside your tale?

How to Create a Literary Masterpiece on Purpose

Ultimately, my number one tip for crafting dramatic irony is to do it purposefully. As an author, you’ve got loads of storytelling devices at your fingertips. Your job is to figure out which ones are right for the tale you’re trying to tell.

Is it better to build suspense by offering your audience inside information or shock them with the same midpoint twist that throws your protagonist for a loop? Should your main character be the unknowing victim of dramatic irony? Or are they suffering because one of your other characters is in the dark?

Only you can say for sure, but you don’t have to think it through alone. There’s a whole community of fellow writers out there who’d love to talk literary devices with you. You can find a bunch of them in Dabble’s online writing community, the Story Craft Café.

You don’t have to use Dabble to join (for free!), and you can sign up right here.

Join us in the Café and learn the truth: you’re never in the dark with Dabble.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.