Situational Irony vs Dramatic Irony
It’s probably been well established by now how important irony is to fiction writers. However, the concept of irony itself runs far deeper than mere character-based interactions, so whether your story either has a tragic or a comic trajectory, it’s important writers consider how irony can help shape the bigger picture. What can you do to ensure your novel is using irony not just on a micro level, but on a macro level too? Have you considered how your various plot points can, in and of themselves, be ironic?
The truth of the matter is, irony is a multi-faceted beast, so the more you learn about the various types of irony the more your abilities will flourish as a writer. After all, with understanding comes greater knowledge, so allow me to introduce you to situational irony and dramatic irony—both of which should, if used properly, help you master irony at each stage of the writing process.
Expectation vs reality—it’s as simple as that. Situational irony is about unintended consequences. It’s about expecting one thing and getting another. It’s about the unpredictability of cause and effect—how one action can lead to an unanticipated reaction, leading to outcomes entirely divorced from your characters’ expectations. Obviously, there can be humorous context to this—Aesop’s fable ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ wouldn’t bring a smile to your face when the tortoise wins the race were it not for the fact that the hare was arrogant enough to assume he’d win.
However, let’s not forget, tragedies can utilise situational irony too. In this sense, twist endings can indeed serve this function, as the whole intent is clearly to pull the rug out from under the reader and present them with an ironic contrast to challenge their immediate perceptions. Using situational irony can bolster the underlying themes of your story, either through surprise or through unexpected detours. All that needs to come across is how there’s more than meets the eye, both for your characters and, indeed, for the reader.
Putting it very simply, dramatic irony is when the reader is more aware of what situations are due to transpire than the characters are. Any book which uses after-death narration, such as The Lovely Bones for example, may deploy dramatic irony to make sure the reader is one step ahead of the other characters in your story. In this respect, dramatic irony can ensure your characters remain oblivious to the fact that you—the reader—are blessed with a greater level of analytical insight than they are. Which, of course, you already are, but dramatic irony just underscores it.
William Shakespeare also used dramatic irony, for instance King Duncan declares how much he trusts Macbeth, with only the audience knowing about Macbeth’s plot to kill him. Since the reader knows King Duncan’s trust is misplaced, this is dramatically ironic. Ultimately, this ironic technique is about allowing the reader foresight and arousing curiosity—it gives the writer freedom to add more aspects to the story, more layers to interpret, and extra details to notice, that might otherwise have been overlooked.
By alternating between situational irony and dramatic irony, writers can craft a much better story which conveys situations more expertly, invokes humour and/or suspense more effectively, and elevates a novel above mere happenstance. These types of irony can give you flexibility to make your themes broader and more potent, as well as embellishing upon the interplay between your characters. Next time you’re writing a story, try seeing how your plot could benefit from situational irony or dramatic irony to use as rocket fuel. It’s not easy, but when the sky’s the limit, it’s never too late to learn to make it fly.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and aspiring novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.