The Four Types of Irony Every Writer Should Understand
Who’s ready to identify some irony?
It’s a dangerous game, I know. Depending on the crowds you roll in, declaring that something is ironic can be the ultimate risk. If you’re wrong, you’ll never hear the end of it. And here’s the kicker:
This device isn’t as straightforward as people pretend it is.
For one thing, there are several different types of irony. When someone shames another person for their use of the term, it’s often because they’re only familiar with one version of it.
Plus, the definitions of these varying types include vague concepts like “expected outcome” and “the speaker’s intention.” These are mushy ideas that don’t always have universally agreed-upon interpretations.
It’s entirely possible for one person to see something as ironic under the correct definition, while another person with an equally solid grasp of irony completely disagrees.
Fortunately, the writing life is not one big standardized test. All that really matters is that you understand how you can use irony to add depth, suspense, and intrigue to your story. We’re going to talk about:
- What irony really is
- The four types of irony, including examples
- The function of irony in literature and film
- How it works with other storytelling tools
- The process for crafting irony in your own writing
- How this tool impacts the reader experience
Let’s start with the big question:
What is Irony?
In the broadest possible terms, something is ironic when it subverts appearances or expectations.
Whether it’s through events, situations, or words, irony is all about building tension between how things seem and how they actually are, between our assumptions and reality.
That’s what makes this literary device such a powerful instrument for designing shocking plot twists, adding deeper layers to characters and themes, and crafting a story that leaves the audience questioning their own perception.
Don’t worry if this all still seems pretty vague. Once we cover the different types of irony and lay out some handy examples, this will start to make more sense.
In fact, we’re about to get a pretty perfect example right now just by talking about the origins of the term.
Where Irony Comes From
In ancient Greece, there was this comedic stock character called an eiron. This character’s whole thing was bringing down his opponent, the alazon, by feigning ignorance and understating his own abilities.
The eiron was always smarter and more capable than he appeared, while the braggadocious alazon turned out to be totally incompetent.
The term “irony” comes from “eiron,” and get this: the dynamic between these two characters involves all four types of irony we’re about to explore.
The Four Types of Irony
After this article, you’ll probably start noticing irony everywhere. There are so many different ways to play with the tension between appearances and reality that it’s pretty rare for a story not to incorporate irony in some form. It can be as simple as a snarky line of dialogue.
So let’s look at the four different types of irony so you can start thinking about how you might use them to enhance your story.
As you might guess, verbal irony is all about the words. As an author, you’ll use this device in both narration and dialogue.
In verbal irony, what the speaker says is different from what they mean. That just sounds like lying, I know, but there’s an important distinction.
If someone lies, they want the listener to take their statement as truth. If they use verbal irony, they intend for their true meaning to either be recognized or eventually found out.
The eiron uses verbal irony to feign incompetence, but he fully intends to reveal his capability in time.
This literary device can fulfill several functions, like revealing hypocrisy, hinting at theme, foreshadowing, or adding humor.
The best-known forms include sarcasm, ironic overstatement (hyperbole), and ironic understatement. But there’s a lot more to it than that, so I strongly recommend perusing our full guide to verbal irony.
In the meantime, here are some examples to help you start recognizing this technique out in the wild.
Verbal Irony Examples
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” –Pride and Prejudice
The single man isn’t in want of a wife. The single ladies are in want of a husband in possession of a good fortune.
“...Brutus is an honorable man.” –Julius Caesar
Brutus just murdered a guy in broad daylight.
“I hate you, Harry. I really hate you.” –When Harry Met Sally
She means “I love you,” as evidenced by the kiss immediately following this declaration.
This is usually what someone is talking about when they say, “That’s so ironic.” Situational irony occurs when a situation or outcome is different from (and often the opposite of) what you’d expect.
In the example of the eiron and alazon, the seemingly incompetent character turns out to be the capable one and vice versa. Bam. Situational irony.
Another example of situational irony would be when an acrobat gives a flawless performance and then trips on a crack in the parking lot afterward.
Within this particular type is a subtype: cosmic irony. Cosmic irony occurs when it seems as if the universe itself is conspiring to give the characters an outcome that’s opposite from the one they’re pursuing.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one example of this. Death is not the expected outcome for two newlyweds so desperate to dedicate their lives to one another. But as we know, these lovers are “star-crossed.”
To learn more about situational irony, check out this guide.
Situational Irony Examples
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a ship is lost at sea. As the crew begins to die of thirst, the situational irony of their predicament is summed up in the line, “Water, water every where / Nor any drop to drink.”
In “The Story of an Hour,” Josephine gently breaks the news of a man’s death to his wife, Louise, knowing Louise has a heart condition. The new widow is surprised to discover that she’s overcome not by grief, but by a sense of freedom. When her husband shows up alive, she dies of a heart attack.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience holds crucial knowledge that a character does not. It’s a great source of suspense and/or comedy because the reader is biting their fingernails, waiting to see when the character will learn the truth and what fatal mistakes they’ll make in the meantime.
Because the eiron and alazon are stock characters, an audience would likely realize from the beginning that neither character is presenting themselves authentically. But the alazon doesn’t realize this. He carries on with his boasting, believing the eiron is as hopeless as he pretends to be.
Dramatic irony includes the subcategories of tragic irony or comedic irony. In tragic irony, the audience watches a character unknowingly make decisions that lead to their inevitable doom. In comedic irony, the character’s ignorance will probably still lead to poor choices and rough outcomes, but everybody can laugh about it, knowing it will likely all work out in the end.
You can learn more about dramatic irony here.
Dramatic Irony Examples
In The Truman Show, Truman has no idea his entire life is a television show. But the audience knows—both the real-life audience and the one in the movie—and everyone eagerly waits to see what happens when he discovers the truth.
In Crazy Rich Asians, the narration reveals that Nick is one of Singapore’s wealthiest bachelors long before his girlfriend, Rachel, finds out. So when Nick brings her home to meet his family, the audience is watching her blindly walk into a world where she’ll be treated as unworthy.
This is where we have an overlap in the different types of irony. See, Socratic irony is a form of verbal irony. It happens when someone pretends to be ignorant about something in order to illuminate incompetence or inconsistency in someone or something else.
Socratic irony is the entire concept behind the eiron character. He feigns ignorance to tempt the alazon to let down his defenses.
You can see why this technique is particularly popular in detective novels and courtroom dramas. Check out this guide to learn more about it.
Socratic Irony Examples
Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is a work of satire in which the author ironically suggests that poor Irish babies should be sold to English nobility for food. His writing takes on a false tone of cheerful obliviousness to the horrific nature of such a suggestion, which only highlights the very real disregard for humanity in England’s exploitation of Ireland.
In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods slips a story about a sorority sister’s wet t-shirt contest into her courtroom questioning. It feels unrelated to the trial and draws attention to the dumb blonde persona everyone associates her with… which is exactly what allows her to catch the witness off-guard with a question that ultimately causes the witness to incriminate herself.
A Closer Look at Irony in Literature and Film
As you probably realized from all those examples, different types of irony offer different benefits from a storytelling perspective.
Situational irony can create a shocking twist or encourage the reader to question their assumptions. The fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” does both. The tortoise winning the race is an unexpected outcome that shocks us (or at least it shocked me as a slow and clumsy five-year-old). It also invites us to question what it really takes to succeed and whether confidence equals excellence.
Dramatic irony is a popular device for authors who want to create suspense. One famous example of this shows up in the Odyssey when Odysseus disguises himself as a stranger and tries to seduce his wife as a test of her faithfulness. The audience sits in suspense, waiting to see if Penelope will make the right call…
…seeing as how, you know, Odysseus was so faithful to her. (That’s an example of sarcasm, saying the opposite of what one means in a snarky way to call out stupid things like sexist double standards. It’s a form of verbal irony.)
Socratic irony is great for revealing shocking truths and peeling back the layers of your characters.
All irony has the potential to add depth to your plot, characters, and themes.
The Intersection of Irony and Other Storytelling Devices
As I mentioned before, the whole point of discussing the different types of irony is so you have more tools to work with as you craft a compelling story.
To that end, we should probably also cover how this device can work in conjunction with other storytelling tools.
Here are a few techniques that commonly intersect with irony:
By simply incorporating irony in your story, you’re almost guaranteed to add layers to your plot or characters. This device naturally uncovers deeper truths lurking beneath appearances. And that sets you up for symbolism.
Remember that situational irony example where the tightrope walker trips on a crack in the parking lot? In a larger story, that crack could symbolize the tightrope walker’s self-doubt—the seemingly minor flaw that constantly sabotages their success.
Foreshadowing shows up a lot in stories that incorporate situational and dramatic irony. It might be a vague hint that things won’t go as planned, like a sudden clap of thunder when your characters toast to a great weekend ahead.
Or it might be a more specific line of narration that clues your reader into the fact that the protagonist is heading for danger but doesn’t know it yet.
You’ll sometimes see flashbacks at work in dramatic irony. A flashback is one of many ways to let the reader know crucial information that other characters might not know.
Let’s say, for example, you’re writing a romance where one of the would-be lovers holds a grudge because the other stood them up years ago. In a flashback, the reader learns that the no-show lover was helping a friend through a private emergency.
Now the reader likes this character even more and sees that they’re a worthy partner who doesn’t deserve the resentment coming their way.
Many of the greatest plot twists are examples of situational irony. After all, a plot twist is an outcome no one expected.
It’s important to note, however, that not every instance of situational irony is a plot twist. If it’s a smaller moment that doesn’t change the direction of the story, it’s not a twist. It’s just ironic.
Crafting Irony in Your Own Writing
Now that you’ve got all the tools you need, let’s cover a few quick tips for nailing irony in your next novel.
Know what you’re trying to accomplish - Resist the temptation to toss irony in your story just to show your readers how clever you are. This device can add so much depth to your story, but only if you know how and why you’re using it.
Help your audience read between the lines - Irony is meant to be perceived, not stated outright. That means your readers have to be able to recognize that a character doesn’t literally mean what they say or that your protagonist was only playing dumb.
Consider all the ways your use of irony could impact your story - In dramatic irony, the assumptions a character makes in ignorance reveal a lot about their hopes and fears. Situational irony can often feel like it makes a statement on a larger theme, even if that’s not your intention.
Examine your planned use of irony from every angle and ensure it does what you want.
Impact of Irony on Readers
Last but probably most importantly, we should talk about how irony impacts your reader’s experience. When it’s well-crafted, irony can:
Invite deeper understanding of characters and situations - How do your characters respond to an unexpected outcome? How do they handle deceit? Why might they choose to use verbal irony instead of being direct? How does a sudden twist add complexity to the central conflict?
Heighten the impact of the theme - Legally Blonde is a great example of this. The theme of that movie is that the most powerful thing you can be is yourself. This concept is already baked into the plot and Elle’s character, but it resonates on a deeper level when she uses Socratic irony to prove that her supposed shortcomings are her superpower.
Keep the reader engaged and guessing - No matter which type of irony you use, you send a message to the reader that you’re not afraid to play games with appearances and reality. This keeps them on their toes, eyes wide open.
So That’s Irony—Time to Make It Your Own
It may have become some kind of badge of intellectual honor to know when something is or isn’t ironic. But for writers, mastering this device isn’t about being smart as much as it’s about being effective.
Irony is worth understanding so you can use it to enhance your story and add layers to your characters’ lives. That’s why we learn any literary device: to become better writers.
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