Your Guide to the Manipulative Art of Socratic Irony

Abi Wurdeman
January 8, 2024
Your Guide to the Manipulative Art of Socratic Irony

Socratic irony is just one big verbal hustle.

You make the other person feel safe in the conversation—make them think they’re the smart one and you’re coming in with an open heart, seeking their guidance. Then bam! You trap them in a lie or expose their hypocrisy.

Yep, Socratic irony can be pretty shady and dramatic for a technique that’s inspired by an ancient teaching method. But that’s what makes it such a fun toy for authors.

Want a thrilling way to reveal a plot twist? Demonstrate that a character is smarter than they appear? Create tension between two characters or bring the villain to justice?

Socratic irony might be the tool you’re looking for. You just have to know how to use it.

You and I are about to explore every square inch of Socrates’ old trick for bringing the truth to light. We’ll cover:

  • What Socratic irony is, including a tidy definition and clear examples
  • How it compares to other forms of irony
  • How to use Socratic irony in your own creative writing
  • The impact this device has on the reader experience
  • Challenges to look out for

Ready? Let’s get manipulative.

In a good way.

What is Socratic Irony?

A person in a white blouse shrugs.

Let’s start with a clear and simple definition.

Socratic irony is when someone feigns ignorance to expose another person’s very real ignorance, hypocrisy, or dishonesty.

Perhaps more accurately, Socratic irony is a sneaky little trick to get someone else to expose themselves as daft or inconsistent. 

You see this a lot in courtroom dramas and hard-hitting interviews, like when a lawyer asks an investigator to explain DNA testing, playing dumb but knowing that the answer will reveal a hole in the investigator’s own testimony.

But those aren’t the only contexts where Socratic irony can shine, as you’ll soon learn.

Where Does Socratic Irony Come From?

Believe it or not, this verbal hustle is said to have been inspired by Socrates’s teaching methods.

That’s right! Socratic irony is educational. Sometimes. Sort of. 

If you’re not familiar, Socrates was a hotshot thinker in ancient Athens. He’s credited with things like founding Western philosophy and being insufferably ironic when discussing ideas with his students.

Basically, Socrates would let his students sound off on their beliefs, then respond with false humility, asking questions as though he were there to learn. All the while, those questions were engineered to get his pupils to re-examine their own ideas, decide they were wrong, and find their way to the correct answer.

In other words, that vaguely smug professor of yours who simultaneously opened your eyes and drove you up the wall was simply a modern-day Socrates. You should send them an email and tell them that. They’ll love it.

How is it Used in Fiction?

A couple smiles as they read a book together at an outdoor table.

As you can probably guess, Socratic irony shows up a lot in mysteries and thrillers. It’s a common strategy in interrogation and courtroom scenes as detectives and lawyers try to trick suspects into incriminating themselves.

Of course, those aren’t the only places it pops up. You can use Socratic irony any time a character wants to reveal someone else’s secret but knows making demands for it won’t work.

In fact, I just saw Socratic irony at work in an episode of Bob’s Burgers like two hours before I started writing this article. Louise realizes her parents got rid of her oversized, constantly underfoot stuffed animal; they didn’t donate it to orphans who needed it more than her like they previously claimed. 

Instead of confronting her parents directly, she asks to visit the stuffed animal in its new home so she can see the joy it’s bringing the orphans. She’s faking ignorance to get her parents to admit they lied.

You’ve probably worked this out by now, but you primarily see Socratic irony in dialogue. It can appear in the narration of a story, though that approach is more commonly taken in satire, as you’ll see in this next section:

Examples of Socratic Irony

As writers, we learn best by reading, so let’s cement our understanding of Socratic irony with some real examples.

From Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”:

“I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection. I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food…”

In this masterpiece of satire, Swift isn’t actually proposing that Irish babies born into poverty be sold to English nobles as a delicacy. But he makes this absurd suggestion with a tone so comically earnest it shines a light on the carless way England exploited Ireland.

From Legally Blonde:

SALESWOMAN: (secretly rips the sale tag off of a discount dress) Did you see this one? We just got it in yesterday.
ELLE: Oh! Is this low-viscosity rayon?
SALESWOMAN: Yes, of course.
ELLE: With a half-loop stitching on the hem?
SALESWOMAN: Absolutely. It’s one of a kind.
ELLE: It’s impossible to use a half-loop stitching on low-viscosity rayon. It would snag the fabric. And you didn’t just get it in. I saw it in the June Vogue a year ago.

Elle Woods is a Socratic irony master. She knows people underestimate her intelligence, and she has no problem playing along to make them look extra foolish when she reveals her smarts.

Socratic Irony vs. Other Types of Irony

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

So where does this device fit in the wide world of irony? How does it compare to or work with other forms?

Let’s discuss.

Verbal Irony

This one is easy. Socratic irony is actually a form of verbal irony.

Verbal irony occurs when someone says something that’s different from what they mean. You can probably see how Socratic irony fits under this definition. But Socratic irony isn’t the only tool a person might use to create tension between what they mean and what they say.

Hyperbole is also a form of verbal irony. “I’m up to my eyeballs in bills.”

So is sarcasm. “Oh, good, I was hoping for another late fee from the electric company.”

You can explore this subject more by checking out this article

In short: Socratic irony is always verbal irony, but verbal irony isn’t always Socratic irony.

Situational Irony

Situational irony is different because it’s not about what’s said, it’s about what happens.

In this type of irony, an event or outcome is different from what most of us would expect. A police station getting robbed would be an example of situational irony.

Situational and Socratic irony can operate separately, but sometimes Socratic irony reveals the surprise twist that delivers the situational irony.

Take the Legally Blonde example above. At this point in the movie, the audience is just getting to know Elle, and so far, they’re probably also stereotyping her as—in the words of the saleswoman—“a dumb blonde with Daddy’s plastic.”

And yet, through Socratic irony, that “dumb blonde” proves to be the sharpest person in the room—the unexpected, situationally ironic outcome. 

You can learn more about situational irony here.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is when the audience holds crucial knowledge that a character doesn’t have. One of the most famous examples of this type of irony comes from The Truman Show, where Truman’s entire life has been scripted and televised, and he has no idea.

Once again, Socratic and dramatic irony don’t need each other to work, but they can coexist. Sometimes the reader is aware that Socratic irony is happening; they know that a character is getting played and are watching that person walk directly into the trap. That’s dramatic irony. 

For a closer look at dramatic irony, check out this article.

Crafting Socratic Irony in Creative Writing

Hands typing on a laptop keyboard.

Now that we’re all clear on the definition and potential uses for Socratic irony, it’s time to talk about how to actually write it into your own work.

As I mentioned before, you’re most likely to use this device in dialogue between your characters or a satirical context. So we’ll take a look at both.

Socratic Irony in Dialogue

The first step is to get really good at writing dialogue in general. In order to craft a believable and suspenseful exchange between your characters, you need to nail their voices and make the conversation sound natural

It also helps to do these other things, too:

Embrace the Back-and-Forth

Let me start by acknowledging that not all instances of Socratic irony have to be a full-blown conversation. 

When you complained to your mother that everybody else was going to be The Little Mermaid for Halloween (or whatever your thing was) and she asked, “If everybody else was going to jump off a bridge, would you?”, that was technically Socratic irony.

It’s just one little insincere question designed to spotlight your own (allegedly) terrible logic

But if you’re using this device to unveil a major secret, force a character to admit guilt, or heighten the suspense for your audience, you’ll probably want to write a longer back-and-forth.

Does the wielder of this Socratic weapon need to play the ignorance game for a while in order to gain their victim’s trust? Do they push it further as a way of setting a bigger trap?

And what if the character who’s feigning ignorance doesn’t get the response they want right away? Or ever? That can be a humorous outcome in a comedic story: the character who’s being baited has no idea it’s happening but still manages to avoid incriminating themselves. 

Make It Convincing

A person sits at a cafe table, smiling at the person across from them.

In order for the irony to work to its desired effect, your reader has to believe that the character being manipulated would truly buy the ignorant act.

Now, there’s some flexibility in this area, depending on your genre. In a broad comedy, you can have some over-the-top Socratic irony and your audience will still be on board. But if it’s a dramatic crime novel, you’ll need to make sure the suspect has a good reason to let down their guard with the detective.

Maybe your verbal hustler disarms the other person by introducing a topic that feels unrelated to the bigger issue. Elle Woods does this when she rambles about a sorority sister’s story in the courtroom, getting the witness to focus on the whole “dumb blonde” thing and carelessly answer an incriminating question without realizing it. 

Or perhaps your Socratically ironic character shares a vulnerable story or is just really natural in their expression of ignorance.

Whatever you do, make it believable that someone would fall for the trap.

Remember: It Doesn’t Have to Be All Talk

Okay, yes, Socratic irony is verbal irony. Words are the tool your character uses to get the outcome they want.

Nevertheless, a character can use Socratic irony to push someone into action… action that will likely prove what an idiot or liar that person is.

Remember the Bob’s Burgers example from earlier? Louise’s request to visit her old stuffed animal puts her parents in a position where they don’t just have to reassure her that they told her the truth—they have to physically prove it.

Socratic Irony in Satire

First, a definition:

Satire is a creative work that calls out hypocrisy, inconsistency, corruption, or dishonesty through comedy. The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Simpsons are all examples of satire.

This category of writing offers a great opportunity to flex that Socratic irony muscle. And in this context, you really don’t have to be subtle about it.

When you use Socratic irony in dialogue, you may or may not want the audience to realize you’re doing it. It depends on your goal, and we’ll discuss that later.

But when it comes to satire, your audience must be aware that what you’re saying isn’t a true reflection of your beliefs. And the most effective way to pull that off is by embracing absurdity.

Remember the quote from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” suggesting that babies born in poverty be sold to the rich as food? Because Swift is clearly being ironic, the reader can see through to the real-life absurdities he is calling out.

Effects of Socratic Irony on Readers

A person holds an open book and touches their glasses to their chin as if thinking.

Of course, there’s no point in discussing any of this if we don’t know what readers get from Socratic irony. 

What are you accomplishing as a storyteller when you incorporate this device into your novel?

It depends on your specific story, but you might be…

Introducing a thrilling twist - If your reader isn’t already privy to the knowledge that your character is trying to unearth with their irony, the big reveal might give them a delightful shock.

Building tension - When your audience does see what your character is trying to accomplish with Socratic irony, they’ll get antsy waiting to see if it works.

Showing your characters in a new light - Socratic irony can be a tool for exposing liars, criminals, and hypocrites. So that’s already pretty exciting. But, as Elle has shown us, it’s also a device that illuminates the person who uses it. With this type of irony, you can highlight a character's insight, cleverness, or pluck.

Inviting the reader to see things from a new perspective - Socratic irony isn’t just for revealing flaws in people. You can use it to question an unexamined value system in your novel’s world or inspire your reader to see a plot point from a different view.

That’s what Socrates supposedly used it for, after all—to invite others to question their perception, be aware of their assumptions, and consider the world through a wider lens.

The Challenges of Playing Socrates’s Mind Games

A person sits on the floor wearing headphones and writing in a journal.

Socratic irony is like any other skill in writing: doing it well takes practice. It also helps to be aware of what could go wrong so you can avoid common pitfalls.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you experiment with this form of irony:

Know who you’re surprising - In other words, do you want your reader to be in on the manipulation? Or do you want them to be just as blind-sided as the character who’s the target of this hustle?

Nail down your objective ahead of time so you can either give the reader enough knowledge to realize that your character is faking their ignorance or withhold enough information so your audience will be surprised. 

Know the difference between lying and Socratic irony - This is tricky. One of your characters might say something that’s untrue to achieve a desired outcome. For example, in order to avoid punishment, a kid might say they didn’t break a window that they absolutely did break. 

That’s not Socratic irony. In Socratic irony, the goal is not to conceal or alter reality but to draw it out. There’s some fakery involved in the execution, but the ultimate goal is to shine a light on the truth.

Know when to be subtle and when to lay it on thick - We discussed this a bit, but it bears repeating. Notice instances of Socratic irony in other books in your genre. How do they tackle this technique?

Do they lay it on thick like a big wink to the audience? Or do they use a lighter touch?

Justify the reveal - Whether it’s a confession to a crime or ignorance exposed, make sure the character who uses Socratic irony actually earns their victory.

Nothing is more disappointing—or less believable—than watching a character spill their entire guts after like two sentences of gentle prodding.

So Is This Something You Should Use in Your Story?

If it works, sure!

This device is definitely worth knowing about. It’s something you want to be able to recognize in other works and consider as you look for ways to create more tension and intrigue in your novel. 

But it’s not something you have to force into everything you write.

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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.