Narrative Techniques: Irony

A series exploring storytelling techniques. This essay looks at the different types of irony and how to understand them.

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© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

The misuse of irony has been happening since the 1600s, and is no new feat but is often treated as such. There are hundreds of definitions or examples of irony presented to the public that simply don’t fit the accepted definition. If you cannot define irony, it is a safe bet that you cannot recognise it. Not every coincidence, curiosity, oddity and paradox is an irony – not even loosely – yet they are often cited as such in various forms of screenplays, literature and even music.

“Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant.”

Eric Partridge

There are three standard types of irony, that when used effectively can enrich one’s writing.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is where speakers communicate implied propositions that are intentionally contradictory to the propositions contained in the words themselves. This is often confused with sarcasm. For example, saying ‘What a lovely day,’ when it rains, is not sarcasm, but in fact irony. This is because sarcasm is designed to be caustic and often pointed at an individual.

Other examples of verbal irony include echoic allusion, a difficult one to example but not necessarily to master. It is, simply put, not what one says, but also how they say it. There’s a situational air about this form of irony.

“I wasn’t going to eat the pizza, you know.”

“Interesting, that’s what it looked like you were doing. I must have been mistaken.”

On the surface this could look like a simple apology for a misunderstanding; however, if in fact in this conversational dialogue it turns out the first speaker had been caught by the second doing just that, then it becomes an ironic statement.

The most obvious form of verbal irony is ironic simile. For example, clear as mud or soft as a brick. The irony is recognisable in each case only with knowledge of the source concepts to detect an incongruity, such as bricks not being soft, and mud being anything but clear.

Situational Irony

This form of irony describes a sharp discrepancy between the expected result and actual results in a certain situation.

Mythologies are full of situational ironies, such as Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother whilst not knowing their relationship, due to being left to die by his father to prevent that very prophecy from happening. In fact, other instances of patricide within mythology can be attributed to this situational irony (Zeus and Cronus, and Krishna and King Kamsa).

Cosmic irony is closely linked with situational irony, arising from the belief that the gods are amusing themselves by creating ironic situations. It is described by Sudhir Dixit as a ‘hostile deus ex machina,’ particular in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, focusing in on the last phrase.

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Æschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Dramatic Irony

Finally, this type of irony relies on the audience knowing a piece of information that one of the characters or more is unaware. For example, In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has remained faithful to Othello, but he does not. The audience also knows that Iago is scheming to bring about Othello’s downfall, a fact hidden from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo.

This type of irony is popular in tragedy and can be found in works such as Romeo and Juliet, Oedipus Rex and The Cask of Amontillado, but also appears in comedy and satire such as The Truman Show, where the audience knows Truman is on a TV show, but he only learns of this slowly.

 

This is just a taster in irony, as there are many other subtypes, but even these three types can be explored and used and even combined with other narrative techniques to create an effect idiosyncratic to one’s work.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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