What's the Sitch with Situational Irony?
I’ve always thought irony is one of those terms most people sneer at others for using incorrectly all while they themselves don’t understand all the nuances of it. Maybe that’s just because Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” filled the airwaves throughout my childhood and people always felt the need to shout “That isn’t ironic!”
And while it’s arguable that the song itself is an example of irony, this isn’t an essay about Alanis Morissette. Rather, it’s a look at a specific type of irony: situational irony.
In fact, this is the kind of irony people think of most when they hear the term. But for authors like you and me, there’s a lot more to it than what you might think.
That’s why we’re going to dissect situational irony in this article, including:
- What situational irony is
- Examples of this type of irony in popular literature
- What this literary device can do for you
- How to wield it effectively
- Some final tips to master this type of writing
And I promise this article will be more fun—or at least interesting—than rain on your wedding day. That will be my last “Ironic” reference in this article (and that, my writer friends, is an example of verbal irony).
Defining Situational Irony
Like I mentioned above, situational irony is what most people think of when they say something is ironic. Here’s a straightforward definition of the term:
Situational irony occurs when the actual outcome of a situation is the complete opposite of what was expected.
It’s situationally ironic when I delay my walk with my dog because of a morning rain shower only to be caught by a sprinkler turning on when I step out onto the sidewalk.
Or, for a more dramatic flair, it’s ironic when the best getaway driver in the world gets arrested because they forgot to fill up their tank when the light came on.
When you’re writing situational irony, you’re setting up your reader to believe something (that my walk will be dry or the driver will never be caught in his car) only to have something unexpected happen instead. It’s usually a stark juxtaposition to the original event, but we’ll get more into that in a moment.
Situational irony isn’t the only type of irony, though. So here’s a quick glance at the other three just so you know what we aren’t talking about in this article.
Other Types of Irony: Verbal and Dramatic Irony
There are two other very different types of irony you can add to your writing repertoire—and we even have articles on each one!
Verbal irony - When a character (or person) says one thing but means another. Verbal irony includes, but is far from limited to, sarcasm and witty banter.
Dramatic irony - This form of irony occurs when the audience knows something the characters don’t. It’s a great literary technique for creating suspense and a sense of unease or tension.
Do you need to know those two terms to use situational irony properly? No, not technically. But these three tools are most effective when used sparsely—quality over quantity—so it’s nice to know what all your options are.
But to use this one to its fullest potential, we still have some digging to do. And that starts with looking at some examples.
Well-Known Examples of Situational Irony in Literature
I always struggle to discuss examples of writing without spoiling things, so I’ve leaned on two well-known examples for this section.
“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
In this poignant short story, Kate Chopin uses situational irony to explore themes of freedom and identity. Louise Mallard, who suffers from a heart condition, is informed of her husband’s death in a train accident. As she processes the news, Louise experiences a wave of relief and newfound freedom—a life without the constraints of marriage.
However, in a twist, her husband returns home unscathed and unaware of any accident. The shock is too much for Louise, and she dies of a heart attack.
This tragic turn from the freedom of widowhood back to the binds of marriage, and ultimately to death, is a great example of situational irony, where the outcome is the exact opposite of what Louise initially feels and what we expect.
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy is a classic example of situational irony, particularly in its exploration of fate and destiny. Oedipus, determined to avoid fulfilling a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, leaves his home and heads to Thebes.
Ironically, this journey leads him to unwittingly kill his real father and marry his mother, thus fulfilling the prophecy.
The situational irony comes from the fact that Oedipus's efforts to escape his fate are exactly what lead him into it, highlighting the inescapable nature of fate and the tragic consequences of human ignorance.
The Role of Situational Irony in Storytelling
So we know what situational irony is and what it looks like, but what’s the point? You probably gleaned some tidbits from “The Story of an Hour” and Oedipus Rex, but there’s even more to this literary device.
Add Depth to Your Story
Most importantly, situational irony adds layers to your story. Anytime you can intentionally and meaningfully obfuscate elements of your tale from your reader, it makes them think about your writing in a new light.
In this case, you’re directly challenging their expectations and making them re-evaluate how they interpreted your earlier scenes.
You can use this second look to help drive home themes you’ve introduced or ask your reader a moral question—you know, the intense stuff.
Character and Plot Development
Because situational irony involves a fairly dramatic reveal, it can introduce an important plot point in the story. This plot point can further both character arcs and your story itself.
For your characters, their reaction to the event can reveal a lot about them. It can show their true nature, highlight strengths, reveal weaknesses, or put a spotlight on their values.
Your plot, on the other hand, can be driven forward by these moments or completely pivot. It might involve a reveal that sets the rest of the story on a completely different path than your readers or characters expected.
I often find this particular element of storytelling is underrated, especially among newer writers. You want to sink your hooks into your readers, and situational irony is a great way to do that.
Because this writing device is so unpredictable, it can renew their interest in the story in the blink of an eye. It can also put them on edge for the rest of your book; after all, you’ve caught them off-guard once before.
Even better, twists from situationally ironic moments can linger with your reader for weeks, months, even years after they finish reading your book.
How to Write Situational Irony
Now it’s time to incorporate this powerful literary device into your writing. Easier said than done, though. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a particular formula like where commas are supposed to go. It’s a lot more subtle than that.
Here are some ways you can start adding some ironic situations into your story.
You can’t have an ironic twist if your reader doesn’t have expectations. Start laying the groundwork early—this could be a heist-like plan or an everyday event. You can also establish norms unique to your world or setting to help create expectations.
Once you deliver the word-driven blow to your audience, expect some folks to go back and see where the twist came from. Readers don’t like plot twists that come out of the blue. Use symbolic elements, hints in dialogue, or small incidents sprinkled earlier that can strike the ah-ha moment readers love.
Any sense of tension or successful foreshadowing comes from subtlety. Make sure you rely on editors and beta readers to point out places where you’ve overplayed the build-up.
This tip should go without saying, but I’m not known for my silence: your twist should make sense. It can’t come out of nowhere and it can’t be without some sort of realistic reasoning. Ground that plausibility in your characters’ decisions and values most of all.
Time the Twist
Where you insert situational irony is almost as important as what the surprise is itself. Placing it in the climax can maximize the impact you’re going for, while adding a twist earlier in your story can help you shift your story’s tone at a pivotal moment—for example, from heroic momentum to a gut-wrenching reveal. Neither placement is better than the other, you just need to choose which is best for your tale.
Identify Opportunities for Irony
Take some time to really understand the dynamics of your plot (when certain beats happen, where the lulls are, etc.) and your characters (flaws and strengths) to find the ideal opportunities for an ironic twist.
After finishing your draft, revisit parts of the story where situational irony could enhance the story. Sometimes, the best opportunities for irony become clear during revisions.
The Biggest Tip for Writing Situational Irony
Want to know my #1 best-ever tip for writing a good ironic twist? Use a writing tool that helps you write your best story.
If you haven’t tried Dabble yet, it comes with a host of features and functions to help you plan your story, develop your characters, revise with intention, and place the perfect twists.
Add that to our hundreds of free articles at DabbleU, a supportive writing community in the Story Craft Café, and a non-spammy newsletter that actually tries to improve your writing, and you have the whole package moving forward.
That means it’s not just situational irony you’ll be writing, but an incredible story, too.
And you can try everything Dabble has to offer for 14 days, absolutely free, by clicking here. We don’t even ask for your credit card, so you won’t get a surprise charge if there’s a big ol’ plot twist and you don’t like it.
Or don’t click that link. But, like Alanis Morissette said, it would be like good advice that you just didn’t take.
Still not ironic, but completely accurate.
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