Writing

What Is Irony? Different Types of Irony in Literature, Plus Tips on How to Use Irony in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Apr 26, 2019 • 5 min read

As a literary device, irony is often misunderstood. Although many of us learn about irony in our high school English classes through works of theater like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, many people feel unsure of what irony means—or how to use it correctly. But when deployed with skill, irony is a powerful tool that adds depth and substance to a piece of writing.

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What Is Irony?

The definition of irony as a literary device is a situation in which there is a contrast between expectation and reality. For example, the difference between what something appears to mean versus its literal meaning. Irony is associated with both tragedy and humor.

The term irony entered the English language in the sixteenth century and comes from the French “ironie” and before that, from the Latin “ironia.” All these terms originate from the ancient Greek stereotypical character known as Eiron. An Eiron figure brings down his opponent by understating his abilities, thus engaging in a type of irony by saying less than what he means.

What Are the Main Types of Irony?

There are a number of different types of irony, each meaning something a little different.

  • Dramatic irony. Also known as tragic irony, this is when a writer lets their reader know something that a character does not. For example, when the reader knows that the bus roaring down the highway is headed for an elevated freeway junction that hasn’t been completed yet, it fills the audience with anticipation and dread for what they know is coming: the passengers’ horror and shock. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, each young lover takes the poison, thinking the other is already dead—the dramatic irony comes from the audience wanting them to know the whole story before taking this final action. Similarly, in Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello trusts Iago—but the audience knows better. Learn more about dramatic irony in our complete guide here.
  • Comic irony. This is when irony is used to comedic effect—such as in satire. Jane Austen was a master of irony and dialogue. Her preoccupation with social divisions, and the witty and insightful tone with which she revealed hypocrisy and parodied people contributed heavily to her voice. Austen opens Pride and Prejudice with a famous line implying that men are the ones who hunt for a wife; however, she makes it clear throughout the narrative that it is actually the other way around.
  • Situational irony. This is at play when an expected outcome is subverted. For example, in O. Henry’s classic tale, The Gift of the Magi, a wife cuts off her long hair to sell it in order to buy her husband a chain for his prized watch. Meanwhile, the husband has sold his watch in order to buy his wife a comb for her hair. The situational irony comes from each person not expecting to have their gift be undercut by the other’s actions.
  • Verbal irony. This is a statement in which the speaker means something very different from what he or she is saying. Think of the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: with both his arms sliced off, he says, nonchalantly: “It’s just a flesh wound.” He is ironically (and comically) underplaying the severity of his injury.

What Is the Difference Between Irony and Sarcasm?

Sarcasm is a conversational device characterized by saying the opposite of what one means. Sarcasm comes from the Greek “sarkázein,” meaning to “tear flesh” and indeed, sarcasm is deployed in a mocking, sneering, and often witty tone. This means it can be self-deprecating, with the speaker mocking themselves; or aimed at someone else, in a teasing manner.

The key difference between irony and sarcasm is that sarcasm characterizes someone’s speech. Irony can additionally describe situations or circumstances. There are some cases in which someone could say something that is considered both ironic and sarcastic, but sarcasm is not a literary device.

5 Tips For Writing Irony

  • Pay attention. As you read and watch movies, think critically about what is ironic, and why. For example, in the film The Wizard of Oz, the great and powerful Oz turns out to be just a regular man, while Dorothy, who has been desperately seeking his help so that she can get home, has had the power to return home all along. Think about ways in which you can incorporate situations like this into your writing, where you subvert the expectations of your characters, your readers—or both.
  • Use an omniscient point of view. Many novels written in the nineteenth century are told from an omniscient point of view. When a reader knows more than the character, as in Bram Stoker's Dracula, it generates suspense, because your reader waits for the character to learn what they already know. But you might want to invert that balance of knowledge and make the narrator a character in the story that knows more than the reader. Agatha Christie used this first-person strategy to create narrative irony.
  • Have a clear point of view strategy. Point of view strategy is deeply bound up with what story you want to tell and will guide how that story unspools. No matter where you are in the drafting process, devote some time to thinking through the risks and rewards of different point-of-view strategies and consider who in your story may be best suited to hold the narrative reins.
  • Use the “meanwhile” device. If you are using an omniscient narrative point of view strategy, your narrator may recount a parallel event happening simultaneously in another place using the “meanwhile” device (e.g., “Meanwhile, across town...”). Because this device lets the reader in on happenings that one character has no knowledge of, it is a great tool for generating dramatic irony.
  • Use a flashback sequence. When your narrative or characters recall a long memory from a time before the story began, you may want to pull the reader back into a past scene. This is called a flashback. It important to mark the beginning and end of a flashback to make your time jumps clear to the reader, which you can do using past perfect tense to introduce the change—e.g. “he had gone to the marina.” Past perfect tense uses the verb “to have” with the past participle of another verb (in this case “gone”). After a few lines of this, transition into simple past tense—e.g. “he climbed onto the boat.” Generally speaking, using past perfect for a long section of text is jarring for most readers. It’s enough to use it only at the start of the flashback before switching to simple past tense. At the flashback’s end, use a reminder that the reader is back in the current scene.

Practice your creative writing with Margaret Atwood here.