Let’s face it.
Irony is a tricky concept.
Because if you’re like most people, you can’t really explain it, but you know it when you see it.
Sometimes it’s used verbally. Other times, it’s a situation.
It’s used incorrectly. (Looking at you Alanis Morissette).
So that begs the question: What does the word irony mean, exactly?
Keep reading to get the official irony definition, and then we’ll look at plenty of irony examples to clear up the fuzz surrounding this literary term.
Let’s start at the beginning.
For example, it’s ironic when a police station gets robbed. Or when your manager calls you into his office, and you’re expecting a raise, but instead you get fired.
But here’s where most folks run into trouble…
I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We all know someone who’s done it.
Let’s say I run into you at the grocery store and tell you, “This is the third time we’ve bumped into each other today. Isn’t that ironic?”
That’s just a coincidence.
But it’s easy to misuse a word when there’s a lot of confusion surrounding it. So that brings me to my next point.
Here are the irony definitions for the three main types:
Pretty straightforward, right?
But let’s be clear:
There are more than three types of irony. For instance, cosmic irony, romantic irony, and socratic irony are all literary terms you might vaguely remember from your high school English class.
But all roads point back to the three main types: situational, dramatic, and verbal. So we’ll focus on those.
Let’s first talk about the one that’s the most frequently misused:
So what is situational irony, again?
Remember, this type of irony is when we expect one outcome, but get another. Situational irony is often confused with coincidences.
Here’s a common example:
“We share the same birthday! How ironic!”
Nope, that’s just a coincidence.
Now compare that to this:
“My wife is a flight attendant but she’s terrified of heights. How ironic!”
That’s situational irony because you wouldn’t expect a flight attendant to fear heights.
And irony can be found just about anywhere. We see it in poetry, movies, literature, pop culture, and in real life.
For instance, a great example comes from the movie Finding Nemo.
There’s a clip where Nemo’s dad, Marlin, is debating Mr. Ray on who can better supervise Nemo so he doesn’t get into trouble.
The irony is that during this debate is when Nemo swims off and gets into trouble.
But what about real-life situational irony examples?
One great example happened last year when the University of British Columbia rescheduled their annual snowball fight.
Too much snow.
Good. Now let’s move on to dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony (also called tragic irony) is when the audience is privy to information that the characters aren’t.
We’re in on the secret, basically.
It goes something like this:
A girl in a scary movie gets in her car where the killer is hiding in the back seat. Now, you know the killer is there, but she doesn’t.
What happens next?
Well, I probably don’t have to tell you.
Now you might be asking:
Can dramatic irony be used in more than just thrillers?
Yes, dramatic irony is used across all genres including comedy, romance, and action.
Revisiting our Finding Nemo example, there’s a dentist office scene where Nemo fakes his death. Not only do we know he’s faking, but we also know that it’s a part of his grand plan to make it back home.
See what I mean?
Finally, one of my favorite dramatic irony examples comes from the comedy, There’s Something About Mary.
There’s a scene where Ted thinks the cops have arrested him for giving a hitchhiker a ride.
They’re interrogating him for murder.
We know what’s going on, but Ted has no clue. So he ends up saying things like, “Where I come from this isn’t that big of a deal.”
Meanwhile, the police think he’s a psycho murderer because they don’t realize he’s talking about giving hitchhikers a ride.
Verbal irony is when someone says the opposite of what they mean.
It’s also known as a figure of speech because you don’t take the literal meaning.
Like when a teacher tells a quiet class, “Don’t everyone speak at once!”
But here’s where it gets tricky:
Verbal irony is often mistaken for sarcasm.
Now don’t get me wrong:
Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, but not all examples of verbal irony are sarcasm.
So what’s the difference?
Well, sarcasm is when one’s actual meaning isn’t literal, but it’s said in a mocking or critical tone.
So when someone laughs at your shoes and says, “Nice shoes, dork,” that’s sarcasm — but it’s also verbal irony since the underlying meaning is, “Your shoes look silly.”
Verbal irony by itself, though, doesn’t have to be mocking.
Case in point:
Like when two people are walking in the rain and one person says to the other, “Well, at least the weather is nice.”
Or when someone says something is “as clear as mud.”
That’s verbal irony.
Now let’s turn to literature…
But Shakespeare was also the undisputed king of irony.
For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo discovers Juliet in a drugged sleep and he assumes she’s dead.
O my love, my wife!
Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.
So what does Romeo do?
He commits suicide.
Then Juliet wakes up, finds her dead lover, and kills herself out of grief.
This is a case of dramatic irony. We all know Juliet’s just asleep but Romeo doesn’t.
And you know what?
The entire play itself is situational irony.
We think it’s a love story, but it’s actually a tragedy since both lovers kill themselves in the end.
We also see dramatic irony in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. We know the wicked queen is disguised as an elderly woman bringing Snow White an apple, but Snow White doesn’t.
So Snow White grabs the poisoned apple, takes a bite, and falls.
If she breaks the tender peel to taste the apple in my hand, her breath will silence, her blood congeal. Then I’ll be fairest in the land!
Here’s a clip from the movie:
But what about irony in pop culture?
Let’s talk about that next.
Stephen Colbert played an overtly, unapologetically conservative host.
We all knew Colbert wasn’t actually conservative. But, he used verbal irony to draw his audience in and poke fun at the other side.
For example, when talking about George W. Bush, Colbert said, “I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things.”
Love him or hate him, you have to admit that’s pretty funny.
Another funny irony example comes from the romantic comedy Along Came Polly, where the main character, Reuben, assesses risks for a living.
Despite always playing it safe, Reuben finds himself dating a woman who engages in all sorts of risky behavior.
This includes having dinner at a Moroccan restaurant which ends horribly due to Reuben’s irritable bowel syndrome.
Check out this hilarious situational irony example:
Of course, irony isn’t always funny.
We saw a tragic example of situational irony when it came to John F. Kennedy’s murder.
Right before his assassination, a town official said to JFK, “Mr. President, you can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you.”
What happened next?
You guessed it.
“That was just seconds before there was a loud noise. I looked back and knew something bad happened,” said the town official.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
You know that friend that posts on social media about how they’re tired of social media?
The irony here is that you’d expect someone who’s tired of social media to actually stop using it, right?
Another good example of real-life irony is when a picture of a school’s sign went viral because it included a misspelled word — “We are committed to excellense.”
In 2019, a fire station in Long Island caught on fire. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but you wouldn’t have expected that to happen to a fire station.
The Fire Department’s Chief, Joseph Pesale said, “This is something we do on a daily basis and it happened to us.”
Now that we’ve covered the basics, that brings us to the million-dollar question…
I mean, it’s not that big of a deal, right?
Think about it like this.
As your storyline is unfolding, your reader is wondering:
Will the character discover the secret we’re already privy to?
What’ll happen once they figure it out?
Wait…what if they find out too late?
See what you just did?
You provoked curiosity in your reader.
You’re encouraging your reader to hope, anticipate, or fear the moment where the character learns the truth.
But that’s not all.
Irony is a wonderful way to create a plot twist in your story.
Because let’s face it:
Everyone enjoys a surprise, especially if it’s done well.
A good plot twist forces your readers to mull it over in their heads and discuss it with others. Years later, the reader may still reminisce about the unexpected twist that caught them off guard.
Think about how Shakespeare gave us the ultimate plot twist in Romeo and Juliet.
You wouldn’t have expected a love story to actually turn out to be a tragedy.
And that’s one of the reasons — hundreds of years later — that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most iconic plays of all time.
Because when irony works, it so works.
Let me ask you:
What makes you a good writer?
You’ve probably heard the advice to write and read regularly.
But you can’t stop there. As writers, you and I are fighting for attention in a distracted world.
That’s why it’s even more important to capture your reader’s attention with every sentence and keep them coming back for more.
So word to the wise:
Don’t avoid using this literary technique because other writers use it with such frequency.
Other writers use irony because it works.
You should, too.
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