Irony occurs when what actually happens turns out to be completely different from what would be expected. In writing or speaking, irony involves using words so the intended meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning. The three major types of irony are: dramatic, situational and verbal, though there are also a few other kinds. Review some irony examples that illustrate each different type of irony.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows more about what's going on than the characters. It can create suspense as the audience waits to see if the characters will realize what’s happening before it’s too late. Stories with an omniscient narrator often use dramatic irony as a literary technique.
- A novel's heroine visits her favorite café every day from 11am to 1pm. Her brother's best friend knows this and is trying to find a way to ask her out on a date. The day he gets up the courage to go to the café she's not there. The reader knows she is ill, but he doesn’t.
- A woman thinks her boyfriend is about to break up with her because he has been acting distracted and distant. Readers know he bought her an engagement ring and is nervous she won't say yes. He calls her one afternoon and simply says, "I need to see you. Meet me at Columbus Square at six o'clock." She's sure he's going to break up with her. But when she arrives, he's set up a beautiful proposal with a string quartet, dozens of roses, and a huge sparkler of a diamond.
- In Twilight, Edward is convinced that he is putting Bella in danger when readers know that she is actually in grave danger from others that only Edward can protect her from.
- In Macbeth, the title character appears to be loyal to Duncan. However, Macbeth is actually plotting Duncan’s murder. Duncan doesn't know this, the audience does.
- In Animal Farm, the animals believe Boxer was sent to the hospital while readers know all along that the pigs actually sold him to the slaughter house.
Dramatic irony heightens the audience's anticipation, hopes or fears. As readers wait to see when the main character will "catch on", suspense is building and the pages are turning. Review more dramatic irony examples for more situations that represent this kind of irony.
Situational 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 surprise or shock.
- In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends search for external forces to help them get what they need, but discover that they always had what they needed.
- A person works hard for decades, spending little to save money for retirement. The week before retiring, the person unexpectedly has a massive heart attack and dies.
- A man buys a gun to protect his home. During a break-in, an unarmed intruder wrestles the gun from the homeowner and shoots him with his own gun.
- An ambulance driver speeds to the scene of a road accident. The victim isn't badly hurt. As the driver arrives at the scene, another car smashes into the ambulance causing it to hit the victim’s car and deploy the airbag, which causes more injury to her than the first accident.
- The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin tells the tale of a wife who learned her husband was dead. She felt a sense of freedom, thinking about her new life out from under his thumb. Suddenly, the husband returns (he never was dead) and she dies of shock.
Each of these situations involves a turn of events that is unexpected. Review more examples of situational irony for additional illustrations of this type of irony.
Verbal irony occurs when a character says one thing, but means another. In the examples below, the words that are used to convey verbal irony are marked in bold.
- A writer is working on a comedy. The weather has been dreary, making it difficult to craft witty scenes. Upon opening the blinds to see dark clouds outside again, the writer says, "Great. Another rainy day. How wonderful."
- A woman’s giant dog insists on sitting on her when she relaxes on the sofa. The dog climbs on her and she says, “I’m so glad I have such a tiny little lap dog.”
- A person finishes a huge meal only to have a friend show up with a pizza for the two of them to share. The very full person says, “Wow, perfect timing.”
- I just love watching the same cartoon five times every afternoon. It’s such a delight.
- “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly eat another piece of cake.” That’s what my aunt said as she picked up another piece of cake and started eating it.
To further explore this type of irony, see examples of verbal irony. This type of irony is often confused with sarcasm, though they were not the same. Sarcasm involves a derogatory tone, with at least a bit of a mean-spirited dig rather than using words in an ironic (opposite) manner. Explore irony vs. sarcasm for more insight.
While dramatic, verbal and situational irony are considered the three main types of irony, they are not the only forms.
Socratic irony involves pretending to be ignorant on a topic and asking questions to someone as a way to get them to expose their own ignorance or flaws in reasoning. This technique is commonly used in satire.
- Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical characters, such as Ali G and Borat, acted stupid to highlight the ignorance and stupidity of those they talked to.
- Your parents pretend not to know that you dented the car. They ask you a series of seemingly innocent questions that eventually lead to your confession.
This type of irony is related to the Socratic method used in teaching, though the goal of questioning students in education is to encourage them to engage in critical thinking rather than trying to expose a lack of knowledge.
Cosmic Irony can be attributed to misfortune associated with fate or chance. The outcomes don’t result from characters' actions, so it seems that an outside force has a hand in the situation.
- A classroom bully who picks on overweight classmates throughout childhood is prescribed a medication as an adult that causes extreme weight gain.
- The shyest girl is convinced that boys won’t be interested in her and will prefer her more outgoing friends. She becomes the first in her group to get invited to the big dance.
This type of irony is often seen in situations that can be described as karma, in which a person is seen as getting their due (positive outcomes as a result of previous difficulties or negative outcomes related to previous negative actions).
Irony can be a wonderful literary tool to bring layers and texture to tales of tragedy, comedy or love. No one wants a story to be predictable and irony is anything but that. Especially if you are a fiction writer, don't be afraid to keep your readers guessing. When you use irony in your work, readers just may become so engaged that they’ll want to take additional journeys with you in your future. To get some ideas for further enhancing your writing, review more tips on how to engage the reader.