Five Ways to Use Dramatic Irony in Your Writing

Do you remember the song “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette? That song always made me a little bit crazy every time I heard it, because just about everything mentioned in the song as an example of irony was not actually ironic.

It’s like rain on your wedding day…

It might be a disappointment or a hassle, but rain on a wedding day (without more information) won’t fit into any of the categories of irony.

My apologies if “Ironic” is one of your favorite songs! Feel free to argue me in the comments, or, fellow grammarphiles, to share your stories of the personal pain these lyrics caused you. ;D

There are three common types of literary irony (definitions from wikipedia.com):

Verbal irony: A statement in which the meaning that a speaker employs is sharply different from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed.

Situational irony: When the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect.

Dramatic Irony: When words and actions possess a significance that the listener or audience understands, but the speaker or character does not.

All of these forms of irony are tools a writer can use to enhance his or her storytelling. In this post I want to focus on Dramatic Irony.

Dramatic Irony refers to a situation where the reader or viewer has information that the characters do not have. This generally leads to misunderstandings for the characters, while the reader watches and waits for the truth to be revealed.

Well-known examples of Dramatic Irony would include:

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows that Juliet is not dead but Romeo believes that she is.

In virtually every comic book/graphic novel/film adaptation involving a hero with a secret identity—DC’s Batman, for instance—the audience knows the hero’s identity while most characters do not.

In There’s Something About Mary, the character of Ted is questioned by police about a murder, but he thinks he’s being questioned about picking up a hitchhiker.

In the first Toy Story, Buzz thinks he’s a space ranger while the audience knows he’s a toy.

The wide variety in the above list of examples – From Romeo and Juliet to Toy Story – inspires me as a writer. It suggests that dramatic irony isn’t only useful for one type of story or to create a single effect.

Here are five ways you can use the power of dramatic irony in your own writing:

  • Ratchet up the tension by allowing your unknowing character to make mistakes he wouldn’t make if he could see the full picture. (Romeo and Juliet is a strong example of this. Shakespeare’s Macbeth also uses dramatic irony. The audience knows that Macbeth is plotting to kill Duncan, while Duncan praises and trusts Macbeth.)
  • Reveal a character’s true feelings by allowing them to speak their mind to someone they don’t recognize. (Batman would be an example of this, or any comedy involving mistaken identity, such as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which Olivia and Orsino are both fooled into believing that Viola is a boy named Cesario.)
  • Create empathy by showing a character’s vulnerability in circumstances they don’t fully understand. (In Toy Story, Buzz’s naïve misunderstanding of his own identity endears him to us. This also happens in horror movies when we know the killer is hiding in the very place a character runs to for safety.)
  • Add humor. (One example would be the scene from There’s Something About Mary, described above. Also, in Home Alone, the robbers misunderstand the movie clips to comic effect.)
  • Grab the reader and keep her turning pages to see the fireworks when the unknowing character finds out the truth. (Stephen King’s Carrie uses dramatic irony this way. The reader knows Carrie is going to be humiliated at the prom and we keep reading to see what will happen when she learns the truth. In Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the reader knows that Katniss is unaware that Peeta’s feelings for her are real, and we eagerly read on, waiting to see how she will react when she finds out.)

Things to watch out for when creating dramatic irony:

Don’t irritate your reader by undermining your character’s credibility. Once the audience knows something, they will begin to believe it’s obvious. It’s difficult to interest a reader in a character that seems to overlook the obvious. A character blind to the truth becomes uninteresting quickly.

Don’t be unintentionally funny by having your character act against logic just to keep the dramatic irony intact. This happens in thrillers or horror films when a victim runs up the stairs in search of safety and people in the audience snicker. Illogical characters, like those blind to the obvious, can not only be irritating, they can add humor where you don’t want it.

Have you ever used dramatic irony in your fiction? Do you like to discover it when reading? Can you think of other effects it can have, (or better examples?) Please share your thoughts in the comments.

        

17 Responses to Five Ways to Use Dramatic Irony in Your Writing

  1. Cass Jan 24 2014 at 4:27 am #

    I’m doing a play on typical horror movie tropes in my current WIP so the post is very timely and very helpful. As a reader, I’m constantly frustrated when characters take forever to realize something I already know. It’s a tricky balance!

    And for anyone else annoyed by Alanis’s ‘Ironic’, check out the YouTube clip called ‘It’s Finally Ironic’. Magic.

    • Julie
      Julie Jan 24 2014 at 7:40 am #

      Hi Cass! I love your description of your WIP – best of luck with it. That idea has so much potential. 🙂
      And THANKS for the referral to the youtube clip. I will definitely check it out!

  2. Kelley Jan 24 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    Hi Julie. I don’t comment often, but I LOVE your posts, and this one is no exception! That Ironic song by Alanis Morissette always drives my husband crazy, too. Every time we hear it he starts arguing with the lyrics, lol. This is a great topic, and this sort of thing definitely needs to be done with skill! You are SO RIGHT about potentially undermining a character’s credibility. I read a book where this was a major issue for me, almost right from the beginning, and it really dampened my experience. But when it’s done well, like in the examples you mentioned, it can be much more enjoyable.

    As a pretty logic-minded person, I do find it difficult to let myself get into these sorts of things sometimes, though. I find I have little patience for characters who make horrible choices (even though they may not know everything the audience knows). Alas!

    • Julie
      Julie Jan 24 2014 at 3:33 pm #

      Hi Kelley! So glad you liked this and decided to comment! (For the record, I read your blog faithfully, and LOVE your posts too!) Haha – tell your husband I feel his pain. 🙂 As for the credibility issue with dramatic irony, it is probably one of the first things to aggravate me in a book, especially if it’s a case of “she can’t see how much he likes her,” especially when it is really obvious to the reader. :/ But as you say, when it works, dramatic irony can really add to a book. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  3. Jessica Jan 24 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post. We’re currently doing a satire unit in class, and this explained irony and the difference between the three types in a much better way. I actually understand it now! Thank you!

    • Julie
      Julie Jan 24 2014 at 3:36 pm #

      So glad this post clarified things, Jessica! I love irony, but it can be one of the toughest things to explain. Thanks for letting me know this helped you. 🙂

  4. Jessie Humphries Jan 24 2014 at 3:34 pm #

    Holy shiz, how did I not know/understand all this?! Great advice. When I get done feeling stupid, I’ll start feeling grateful that at least I know it now;) haha

    • Julie
      Julie Jan 24 2014 at 3:40 pm #

      Hi Jessie! Please don’t feel stupid! Irony is one of those things I think we all kind of have a feel for, but generally wouldn’t be able to break it down and define it. I’m glad you liked the post and feel it helped you. 🙂

  5. Rosanna Silverlight Jan 25 2014 at 6:03 pm #

    This is a great post, Julie, and definitely one I’ll keep in mind while I’m working on my novel! 😀 I like the examples you’ve given (d’awww, Buzz Lightyear! ^___^) and I also really appreciate the ‘things to watch out for’–no matter how much I try and test out the feel of something I’m working into the plot–like a touch of dramatic irony–it’s hard to detach myself and imagine how a reader new to the plot will feel when they’re reading it (you have no idea how much I want to let loose on my trusted first readers/critique partners, but it’s not quite there yet!).

    This is great and will definitely help, so thank you! 🙂

    • Julie
      Julie Jan 26 2014 at 9:12 pm #

      Hi Rosanna! I couldn’t agree with you more about how hard it is to detach yourself from your writing and read it with fresh eyes. Personally, I find it to be one of the hardest things to do as a writer. I wish you lots of luck as you get your novel ready for your critique partners! I’m glad you found this post helpful. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  6. Lindsey Jan 27 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    The best recent example of dramatic irony I’ve come across is Diana Peterfreund’s Across a Star-Swept Sea, a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel. The readers as well as several characters are aware of the heroine’s secret identity, and it is quite satisfying to watch the guy-in-the-dark struggle. However, there are many instances, in books and other media, where I can’t get over such gambits. Hello, Clark Kent’s glasses are not that distracting!

  7. Julie
    Julie Jan 27 2014 at 8:13 pm #

    Yes, great example! And I hear ya – Clark Kent requires a whole lot of suspension of disbelief. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  8. Hamed Jan 31 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    Thank you! As always, amazing. not only It was a great writing lesson but also an extremely useful English lesson too. I thought Irony is always accompanied with humor (maybe a sad version of humor), but now I know it’s not like that.
    If I understand this article well, Catch 22 is one the best examples for Dramatic Irony. Heller has used Dramatic Irony to achieve almost all of the effects you mentioned.
    I guess we can put dramatic Irony in a story to make the twists more vivid. I mean, you can use it as a make believe. Just like the good old detective stories.

  9. Sara Davis Feb 2 2014 at 10:24 am #

    Most of the events in “Ironic” are examples of situational irony. Some of them are even resemble canonical examples of irony that I’ve used in teaching classes: the death row pardon two minutes too late echoes the irony of Mrs. Mallard’s death in “The Story of an Hour,” for example, and planning a perfect wedding only to have it ruined by rain is a pretty classic tale of hubris.

    The problem is that most of the examples in the song have low stakes (with the exception, perhaps, of the poor man who dies in a plane crash when he finally gets over his fear of flight). It’s certainly contrary to expectation or desire to have your champagne spoiled by a blackfly, but who cares? Not much is gained or lost there. A rained-out wedding day? Not really compelling–unless you have the weight of storytelling and suspense to contextualize why it matters and what the fallout will be.

    So I think understanding the song as weakly ironic is more productive than understanding it as not ironic at all; as a teaching tool, it can lead toward conversations about how to intenstify the irony or make it matter more to listeners.

  10. Sandra Sep 5 2014 at 12:30 am #

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  11. Drew Colegrove Dec 3 2015 at 11:51 am #

    If you think about it, the fact that she wrote a song called Ironic and then incorrectly gave examples of irony is kind of Ironic.

  12. Cher Xu Jul 20 2016 at 7:51 pm #

    Hi, I am in year 11 and doing a solo on the shrew and i have to portray the character of kat. I am stuck on creating dramatic irony in my own scripted solo where kat has to comfort her daughter (wife to be) and i have to include modern marriage traditions.

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