Irony is a literary technique used when a certain outcome is revealed, but is not what readers were expecting or hoping for. For example, as we're reading a novel, we might learn that the leading lady visits her favorite café every day from 11am to 1pm to work on her manuscript. Her brother's best friend also knows this and is trying to find a way to ask her out on a date. When he finally gets up the courage to go to the café she's nowhere to be found. Here, what we presumed would be the case - their meeting - was not the outcome. Now, a healthy dose of suspense is added to the plot, making for an enjoyable read.
While irony has its place in suspense, it is also a useful tool for humor. Let's take the same leading lady and her brother's best friend again. Say she still visits her café every day and her brother's best friend is still determined to tell her how he feels. In this instance, he wants to leave a love poem at her door. One day, knowing she'll be at the café, he goes to her apartment to slide his poem under her door. Right when he bends down to push the piece of paper under her door, she flings it open in a hurry, steps out, and trips right over him.
There are many ways to play with irony. This is great because it brings added layers and texture to a story. Irony is predominantly defined within three main categories: dramatic irony, situational irony, and verbal irony. Let's have some fun with each.
Dramatic irony is used when the audience knows more about what's going on than the characters. This creates suspense, or humor, as the audience waits to see if the characters will come to understand what's really happening. Dramatic irony heightens the audience's anticipation, hopes, or fears.
Have you ever read a novel where the narrator was omniscient (knew what every character was thinking and feeling)? These are great setups for dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony has a nice place in both comedy and tragedy. As readers wait to see when the main character will "catch on", suspense is building and the pages are turning. For more examples, take a look at Dramatic Irony Examples.
This type of irony occurs when something happens that is completely different from what was expected. Usually, these instances incorporate some type of contradiction and a certain level of shock - for both the characters and the readers.
For more examples, check out Examples of Irony in History.
This type of irony comes to play when a speaker says one thing, but means another.
That sounds a lot like sarcasm, doesn't it? Let's say we were reading about a character who was afraid of heights. One day, her boyfriend surprises her with two tickets for a hot air balloon ride. She replies with, "Wow, I can't wait!" Would you think that's verbal irony or sarcasm? It's actually verbal irony. This form of irony occurs when a character says one thing, but means another. Sarcasm comes into play when a witty attack or somewhat derogatory statement is made.
Here are two examples of verbal irony and two examples of sarcasm:
The first two examples are verbal irony, the second two are sarcasm. Did you spot the difference? Sarcasm is meaner, more derogatory or condescending.
Dramatic, verbal and situational irony are considered the three main types of irony in literature and drama but there are other types of irony found in everyday life.
Socratic irony is most often found in the world of academia; it is related to the Socratic Teaching Method. This method encourages students to present opposing views while the teacher feigns ignorance. This way, students learn to reason and deduce on their own, independent from the opinions of their teacher. Outside of academia, Sacha Baron Cohen made great use of Socratic irony in his satirical characters, such as Ali G and Borat.
Cosmic irony can be attributed to some sort of misfortune. This form of irony is the result of fate or chance. The outcomes are not a result of the characters' actions. We all know the story of the Titanic. It was said that not even God could sink that ship. Devastatingly, the ship sank on its maiden voyage.
Outside the tragic nonfictional irony of the Titanic, isn't irony a wonderful literary tool? No one wants to be predictable, and irony is anything but that. Whether it's dramatic irony, where readers are waiting for the other shoe to drop; situational irony, where everyone involved is shocked; or verbal irony, where words don't line up with true intentions, irony is a fantastic way to send a curveball straight down centerfield. Don't be afraid to keep your readers guessing. They'll be more prone to take additional journeys with you in your future tales of tragedy, comedy, and love.
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