Writing

Writing 101: What Is Dramatic Irony? Literary Device Definition, Examples, and Tips for Employing Dramatic Irony in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Apr 26, 2019 • 3 min read

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Remember the first time you read or watched Romeo and Juliet? The tragic ending of this iconic story is an embodiment of dramatic irony: The audience knows that the lovers are each alive, but neither of the lovers knows that the other is still alive. Each drink their poison without knowing what the audience knows. Dramatic irony is used to great effect in literature, film, and television.

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What Is Dramatic Irony?

Dramatic irony is a form of irony. It is both a literary and theatrical device in which the reader or audience knows more than the characters they are following. The characters’ actions have a different meaning for the audience than they do for the actors or characters, and this device often lends itself to tragedy.

What Is the Difference Between Dramatic Irony, Situational Irony, and Verbal Irony?

Dramatic irony is different from situational irony, in which what you expect to happen does not happen, and verbal irony, in which words do not mean what they seem to mean.

  • Dramatic irony is when the audience knows more than the character. It creates tension and suspense.
  • Situational irony occurs when there is a difference between what is expected to happen and what actually happens. For example, a fire station burning down is a case of situational irony.
  • Verbal irony is when a character says something that is different from what he or she really means, or how he or she really feels. This is the only type of irony where a character creates the irony.

Examples of Dramatic Irony in Literature

In literature, what the main characters do not know and the audience does works to create tension and suspense for the reader. When used in tragedies, dramatic irony is referred to as “tragic irony.”

  • In Sophocles’s Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is fated to kill his father and fall in love with his mother. Oedipus, vowing to avenge his father’s murder, is unaware that he is the one who has killed his father, Laius. When he finds out, he is overcome with grief and gouges out his own eyes.
  • In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Odysseus returns home in disguise to test his wife Penelope’s faithfulness—but the reader know that it is in fact Odysseus.
  • In Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo tries to protect Esmeralda from the gypsies, whom he believes are coming to harm her. In reality, as the audience understands, they are coming to save her.
  • In Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, Brown takes the reader inside the George Washington Masonic Memorial and, using dramatic irony, gives an interior monologue for CIA Agent Simkins that shows his ignorance of the secrets that Langdon and his sidekick, Katherine Solomon, are chasing.
  • William Shakespeare is a master of dramatic irony. In Macbeth, Macbeth pretends to be loyal to Duncan even while planning his murder. And in Othello, the audience knows that Iago is manipulating Othello, while Othello believes him to be honest.

5 Tips for Creating Dramatic Irony in Writing

  1. Create a more complex, multi-layered narrative by letting different characters know different types or amounts of information. The audience will see how the characters interact with each other and make choices based on the information that they have.
  2. Generate interest by allowing the reader to know more than the hero. For example, your hero is waiting for his spouse to arrive, but she was murdered in a previous chapter. The reader is now filled with dread and expectation for what they know is coming: the hero’s shock at the news of his wife’s death.
  3. Instead of telling the story from the point-of-view of your hero, consider exploring the point of view of the antagonist of the story. This will give your reader insights that the protagonist does not have, creating dramatic irony and suspense.
  4. Build turning points in your story around ironic statements by your characters to emphasize and heighten dramatic irony. For example, in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the character of John Hammond repeatedly says he “spared no expense” in building the park. The irony of this statement only becomes clear when things begin to fall apart.

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