Verbal Irony vs Sarcasm
There are few comic writing skills worth honing more than the art of sarcasm, particularly for writers who want to practice writing humorous fiction. That said, sarcasm alone can be a dead-end street to lightweight material lacking the depth it needs to strike an emotional chord with the reader, so it’s important to ensure budding humourists assess its appropriateness and alternate between sarcasm and its closest relation—verbal irony.
Contrary to what you may think, verbal irony and sarcasm are markedly different, no matter how similar they may first appear. Knowing the difference will allow you to make the humour in your writing more full-bodied, beefing up both your dialogue and prose, and better servicing the needs of characters in your story. Without further ado then, here’s the difference between verbal irony and sarcasm, explained as simply as I can.
Most sarcastic literary devices require you to critique whatever you are commenting on. However, if you wish to be more implicit, such as masking or hiding the meaning or purpose behind your comment, it’s verbal irony you’re looking for. Here’s an example: imagine a group of characters standing in the rain and one says to the other, ‘Well, at the least the weather’s been good to us.’
Our rain-drenched character knows the weather is bad, but is saying the opposite to invoke humour to his friends. What’s most notable about this is that this comment, though critical, is not intended to mock a specific individual—it’s purely intended to emphasise the irony of the situation they find themselves in. Therefore, for the most part, verbal irony is about meaning the opposite of what you say, so although such comments can be sarcastic, they are not as explicit or as hurtful as direct sarcasm usually is.
If you wish to be more overt and abrasive, or less inclined to mask your feelings and make your criticism more direct, sarcasm is how you do it. Ultimately, the purpose of sarcasm is intended to mock, or even in some cases hurt, a specific individual. An example of this would be: A woman arrives late to a party and has far too much makeup on her face. The person who answers the door says, ‘What time do you call this? Did the circus finish late?’
By inferring that the woman looks like a clown, the person answering the door is making a jibe about the woman’s appearance at her expense, possibly only because they were upset she was so late in the first place. This is what constitutes sarcasm—it’s a more obvious way of being critical. What you see is what you get. So, whereas verbal irony may be more inclined to find humour in subtler ways, sarcasm can be more vicious and personal. You should only use it if there’s a real character motive there.
My advice to other writers would be: Good friends would not be inclined to insult one another directly, so being verbally ironic is probably more appropriate in a friendship context. Sarcasm itself, however, should probably be reserved for moments where character relationships are fractious, or where antagonism is more apparent. For humorous fiction writers, it’s worth knowing the difference between verbal irony and sarcasm because of the implications it has on characterisation—only by learning how they differ will you learn to identify the right moments for deploying sarcastic techniques to advance your story.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.