After my host’s sudden passing back in January, I spent a couple of months moving over 100 clients to our new ISP – without any passwords that would let me do so in a seamless way. What ensued was a Sisyphean task of convincing various ISPs to share with me the necessary information and help me move all those websites. With that nightmare finally over, I’m back on my blog. To celebrate, I have a very special post for you that discusses irony in writing. I hope you enjoy it!

How to Use Irony in Writing

Ironic sign | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Irony is not an obscure grammar term. In fact, many Internet memes count on it, such as the photo of a stone with the words “nothing is written in stone” written on it, or a bird sitting on a sign that says, “birds are not real.” These are visual displays of irony that make us smile because of the contradiction between reality and expectation. The proximity of these opposites can be quite funny.

Irony is something that is learned. Most children fail to grasp irony because they interpret words literally. Irony, being something seemingly illogical, doesn’t make sense.

As people grow up, they slowly get to appreciate the nuances of language. Irony is an important aspect of how we interact with each other.

Irony can make us smile but it can also make us despair as it pits our expectations against the reality around us. It’s a great way to perceive the small subtleties of life in a relatable way.

Book writing takes its clues from life, so it’s no wonder that authors and writers use irony in various ways, such as to give extra depth to their story or to pepper it with snippets of humor. It can also help readers relate to the characters and feel for them and it can be a helpful tool to drive the story forward.

What makes something ironic?

Irony happens when the outcome differs from what was expected. The discrepancy between expectations and reality creates irony. Would you ever expect a fire department to catch fire? It can happen but it’s highly unlikely. So, when you hear of a fire department catching fire, your first instinct is to say ‘how ironic!’ because you would have thought that fire departments are fire-proof. Your expectations differ from reality.

Arguably, the opposite of irony is honesty, straightforwardness, authenticity, and clarity. Irony is based on opaque situations where conclusions can be wrongly drawn.

You can use irony effectively to depict your character in depth and make them either more or less likable. Irony is a writing tool that can hold a whole book, but you can also use it sparingly to add interesting touches to your characters.

Types of irony

There are various types of irony that you can use to enrich your writing and build tension between your characters.

Verbal irony

Verbal irony is used in conversations when you say something but intentionally mean its opposite.

For instance, imagine a day when everything has been going terribly wrong from the beginning. You get a call from your child’s schoolteacher who lets you know your child just vomited all over herself and you need to take her from school right away. Upon hearing the news, you exclaim in exasperation, “great, just what I needed.” You are subconsciously using irony to emphasize how fed up and frustrated you feel.

When you write a book, irony can enrich your hero’s life and offer more depth to their emotional state. It also helps your readers to better identify with your characters. In the previous example, you can easily identify with the person who is having one of those days. Irony just adds to your connection.

A further example would be when someone asks your heroine if she enjoyed the movie she watched with a potential suitor. “Oh, absolutely. It was as much fun as sitting in traffic for two hours.” Depending on the genre, you can add hyperbole to make the irony more intense and impactful, such as by adding the words “…in a refrigerated trailer filled with rotting fish.”

Another example of verbal irony is when your heating goes off during a snow blizzard and your mother calls to ask how you’re faring. “I’m great,” you may say, “the house is lovely and balmy and I’m nice and toasty.” Your home is obviously frigid—a point you are making by using irony (served with a side dish of sarcasm).

Incidentally, sarcasm is usually directed at a person who is getting criticized in a witty yet sharp way. Irony refers to personality and situations. Irony is used to say the opposite of what is expected, thus creating an unanticipated reaction.

Dramatic irony

A different kind of irony is dramatic irony. This is when your readers know something about the characters or the plot that the characters don’t. It creates suspense as the readers want to see how and when the characters will uncover the truth and understand what is happening. It’s a good way to build up suspense and make your audience identify with your characters, as readers want to know if and when their beloved characters will understand what is happening and how this will play out within the story.

A classic example of dramatic irony used to build up the drama is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Throughout the play, the audience knows what Romeo and Juliet are each doing, but they don’t. It’s the misunderstanding of each other’s intentions that drives them to commit suicide, thus upturning the audience’s expectations for a happy-ever-after. Dramatic irony is used here to build up tension and keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Another example of dramatic irony used to deepen the audience’s connection to the hero’s struggles is The Truman Show. Everyone knows that the whole environment the protagonist lives in is fake, except for the protagonist. The story keeps piling up the clues until he finally discovers the truth and frees himself of the situation he has been living in.

Situational irony

Situational irony is often called irony of events. The character does or says things that are unexpected and out of character for their personality. For example, one of your characters may constantly complain about her poor finances and lack of money—but takes out of her pocket the latest iPhone to book an exotic holiday.

In the above example, we discover something interesting about the character. This is not the only way to use situational irony, though. Situational irony can also help lighten up the mood in your book and is a useful tool for creating suspense, surprise, and unanticipated events.

Imagine a hero in an urban fantasy book that features gods, deities, and supernatural forces that regularly wreak havoc. Our hero is a flight attendant who is scared of heights. The book can use this twist to define the hero, show how absurd and unexpected his predicament is, and develop a plot point built around this situational irony. For example, a god may transform our aforementioned flight attendant into a bird, while still keeping his fear of heights.

In a similar vein, situational irony can also be due to the universe intervening in the fate of your hero—or antagonist. A character can, for example, receive an ironic punishment. Think of the first Paddington movie, where the animal-hating villain ends up cleaning a petting zoo.

Situational irony can also be used in a dramatic way. Imagine a plot where your character is determined to bring together two people and make them fall in love. Instead, through various mishaps, they end up hating each other.

Socratic irony

Socrates, the Ancient Greek philosopher used irony to show the fallacy of people’s knowledge and beliefs. He pretended to be silly or ignorant and asked the other person to explain his position. By asking seemingly preposterous questions, Socrates managed to highlight the absurdity of the other person’s argument.

Socratic irony can be used in a book to highlight a person’s intellect and tactful skills at bringing people before their responsibilities.

Incidentally, many parents use Socratic irony, unbeknownst to them. When a parent knows that the child was naughty but asks silly questions to bring the child to admit to their wrongdoing, that’s Socratic irony. Of course, it doesn’t always work as expected: as a toddler, Natalie, my daughter, once broke a plastic chair’s back. When I asked her who did that, she said, “it was a rock.”

“A rock,” I said. “And how did this rock break the chair?”

“With a sword.”

“I see. And where is this sword-wielding rock now?”

“Behind you,” she cried out pointing behind me… and promptly ran away as I turned to look.

Why irony matters

Irony can bond your readers to your characters in an indirect, gentle, and sometimes funny way. It’s also a great tool to uncover people’s personalities and add twists and turns to your plot.

Irony helps audiences identify with characters

When a character is suffering, your audience identifies more easily with the character and makes an emotional connection with that person. That’s a great way to bind people to your writing. You are creating empathy and compassion between your reader and your character, and this bond can be pretty tight.

Irony can be funny

In many cases, irony is funny. In the example mentioned above, when our flight attendant boards a plane and tries not to look through the window, your readers will obviously laugh at the embarrassment. Irony leaves a lot of space to create funny situations, awkward moments, and comic scenes where misunderstandings abound.

Irony and surprise

Irony can be remarkably suspenseful, particularly when dramatic irony gives clues to the audience but leaves the characters in the dark. Your readers want to read through the book to see when the character will finally understand what has been truly happening. It’s a great tool to create suspense, surprise, and tension—all of which will hook your audience to your book.