Understanding irony in fiction

Learn the differences between the three basic types of irony as well as how to incorporate them in your writing.

Irony
Definition of irony. Photo by Casimiro PT/Shutterstock

Irony is a key element of literature, yet defining it is certainly a challenge. Though it can take many forms in fiction, it always calls for thinking double, with a gap between expectation and result. There’s often an element of the bizarre or quirky about the ironic – with odd juxtapositions, disparities, disjunctions. We might not like some ironic reversals in real life, but fiction can certainly thrive on them. 

There are three basic kinds of irony: verbal, dramatic, and situational. In verbal, the gap is between what is stated and what is intended; in dramatic, between what a character believes to be true and what readers – and possibly other characters – know to be true; in situational, between what the character, or the reader, expects to happen and what actually happens in the story. 

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Verbal irony

Verbal irony is close to sarcasm. Sometimes it works by understatement, other times by overstatement. The words we hear do not carry the intended meaning. In fact, they may be the very opposite. Your character might say, “Keep that up, and you’ll win a prize,” meaning: No one’s impressed, you’re putting everybody off, and so you’d best quit that. So why not just say that, then? Because there’s more of a sting to what’s implied than directly stated. 

Dramatic irony also includes innuendo: “Go ahead. You always do,” which suggests more than it states, especially in a not-so-favorable sounding way. 

Dramatic irony

Then there’s a more substantive type of irony: dramatic. More is at stake here because this kind of irony relates to character. When we hear Pap in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn proclaim seriously that he would have voted on election day “if I warn’t too drunk to get there,” we know we’re in the presence of a character who is incredibly – and laughably – deluded. We know it, but he doesn’t. Every word out of Pap’s mouth condemns him, but he never realizes it. 

King Lear is another striking example of dramatic irony. Lear doesn’t realize how profoundly deceived he is about himself and how wrong his treatment of his banished daughter Cordelia is, but any intelligent audience is fully aware of this. The thrust of the play relies on this irony, as Lear painfully comes to self-knowledge. 

Creating dramatic irony in your characters

The degree of your character’s delusion depends on the story, of course. It seems desirable for any protagonist to be at least somewhat clueless about some things; otherwise, what’s to be learned over the course of the plot? In fact, character growth depends on an initial measure of ignorance that leads to a gradual awakening. And this pattern is the backbone of the rite-of-passage story, leading the character from innocence to experience. 

But think of ignorance as a sliding scale. The greater the lack of self-knowledge, the greater the dramatic irony. If the dramatic irony is ratcheted up too much in a first-person story, you’ll have an unreliable narrator. This is great for humor and satire, but not so good for rendering realistic fiction. If you’re writing the latter, remember that some illusions are beneficial – even a few big ones – as long as your protagonist soon realistically sheds them and rights his or her course. 

Situational irony

The third type of irony, situational, is surely the most frequently used. You think things are going one way, but suddenly they make a hard 180-degree turn. You’d never have predicted it, but there you are. 

There are three basic kinds of irony: verbal, dramatic, and situational.

In fiction, that sudden turnabout can cause problems, because fiction requires conflict. It’s important to note that a rug-pulling or reversal isn’t necessarily ironic. There needs to be something incongruous about it: A disease, job loss, or a romantic break-up may be a downturn, but none of these is ironic unless there is that gap between expectation and result. A character suddenly getting sick isn’t ironic, but your protagonist becoming seriously ill after diligently pursuing a strict health regimen is. Getting fired isn’t necessarily surprising, but what if your character loses her job immediately after being named Employee of the Year? Or if a secondary character comes home from a war, fully intact, only to be suddenly hit by a car? These situations all show a disconnect between what the reader expects and what happens on the page.

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Situational irony is incredibly important in fiction. Crafting it involves an element of writerly skepticism, a general, nagging sense about life that things are not quite what they seem, that things won’t turn out as expected. A writer needs a sense of irony since oftentimes (if not always) life is ironic. An ironic sense oils the gears of conflict. The writer who doubts, who questions, whose sensibility is marked by skepticism, is much more likely to work in all the little insidious traps, pits, and downfalls that characters would face in real life. Well-crafted ironic reversals make for realistic plot movement and character arcs that mirror human existence.

Larger works of irony

As we’ve shown, ordinary realism calls for a sense of irony. But what about writers whose vision is basically ironic? What kinds of works do they write? 

Satire, for one. Irony, as you might imagine, is a good tool for the satirist. Whether the satire is light or vicious, revealing incongruities of one kind or another can be a weapon against a conventional view, a political ideology, or a philosophical view. For instance, Voltaire’s classic satirical work, Candide, attempts to debunk the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s view that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” The innocent Candide’s harrowing experiences as he moves through the world reflect Voltaire’s savage attack on Leibniz’s view – how could such optimism exist in a world full of obvious evil on all fronts? How could there be such a terrible thing as the earthquake that devastated Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755? Voltaire’s resulting satiric work is unrelenting, bristling with irony, combining the bizarre with the grotesque.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a classic example of satire. The film is a merciless attack on Cold War politics, with two nations armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, pointed at each other. The policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, was supposed to prevent a nuclear holocaust – and yet it doesn’t in this film, with its rollicking black humor debunking such a policy. The most iconic event in the film occurs when Major Kong, played by Slim Pickens, rides a nuclear bomb down to its target site, his successful mission ironically setting off the Doomsday Machine and ending the world. But what gives this scene real punch is the implied juxtaposition of a rodeo bull and nuclear bomb. This image of the zealous cowboy riding down to his doom – and everyone else’s – is one most viewers are not likely to forget.

But satire is the extreme. George Saunders, a famous satirist, said, “Irony is just honesty with the volume cranked up.” Non-satirical, realistic fiction can also employ some of this ironic honesty in ordinary, mundane ways. It can reveal your character’s distorted, overblown view of himself, allowing him to become ripe for change. It can reverse your character’s lack of clear orientation, realizing what she once thought is the way up is in fact the way down. Above all, irony is something to be sensitive to in your fiction. When irony is working, readers who like the “volume cranked up” now and then will surely pay attention. 

 

Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two books of nonfiction, and numerous articles and interviews. 

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