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. (Quick note: If you’ve never heard the song “Ironic,” an updated version of this post, which includes the lyrics and official video to the song, can be found here on Julie Eshbaugh’s website.)
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.
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.