In How Stories Really Work, the term ‘Irony’ is used to describe a whole genre of fiction. It has very particular characteristics in comparison to the other three basic genres, Epic, Tragedy and Comedy, and knowing what these attributes are is a powerful thing when it comes to understanding fiction as a whole.
Irony, though, is also used as a a specific writing technique within its own and other genres. It is a storytelling tool used to create contrast between how things seem on the surface and how they really are beneath that surface. The word comes from the Latin ironia, which means ‘pretended ignorance’, and there are three main types used in fiction: dramatic irony, situational irony, and verbal irony.
Sometimes in a story we as readers are given clues, or told outright, about something that the characters in the tale are not aware of: we know what is going to happen before they do. It’s called dramatic irony. In effect, instead of creating a big unknown for the character and the reader, the writer makes us aware that there is a big unknown the existence of which the character does not even suspect. This increases tension between the point when the reader first learns of it and the moment when the characters learn it.
Alfred Hitchcock explains, in a famous example, how this works: four people are sitting at a table, talking, when a bomb explodes. In a second version of the scene, we see someone enter the room prior to the four people, place a bomb under the table, and set it to explode at 1pm. Then we watch as four people sit at that table and have a conversation. We can see a clock on the wall that reads 12:45pm. The first scene shocks us with an explosion; the second uses an imagined explosion in the future to amplify tension.
Knowing what will happen to a character before it happens creates an anticipation and sympathy for that character. On a mechanical level, by showing us something inevitable and then forcing us to watch as events unfold, the writer magnetically fixates our attention on the series of events as we try, uselessly, to enter into the story to warn the character or change the event.
At the beginning of Frank Capra’s classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, the lead character George Bailey is the subject of a cosmic conversation between angels who hint that ‘this is his night’. We, the audience, are given a mystery - why is it his night? What will happen to him? This serves to glue our attention to the series of events which are then played out in front of us.
Similarly, when we are shown something about a character which other characters do not see, we are drawn closer to that character. Characters who adopt disguises in plays, or who are up to something which we have been told about but which no one else knows about, also become magnets for our attention and sympathy, even when they are up to something villainous.
Comic misunderstanding - the playing out of events in stage or screen which we as an audience can see through but which characters cannot -is also a form of dramatic irony.
The basis of Irony as a genre, though, has much to do with situational irony. This is when all our expectations are set up for one event or kind of event and then the opposite happens. This is not the same as bad luck or coincidence. A man getting caught out in the rain without an umbrella is simply bad luck; an umbrella manufacturer getting caught in the rain is situational irony.
Crime stories, mysteries and thrillers contain a lot of situational irony usually. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle full of praise for the place and for his hosts, but is later murdered in his bed there. This is also an example of dramatic irony, as we have been shown the planning for the murder prior to his arrival.
Situational irony takes readers to an unexpected destination within a story. This can be particularly powerful when delivering a moral message. In Great Expectations, protagonist Pip has all along suspected that his mysterious benefactor is Miss Havisham, and that part of his reward will be marriage to her protegé Estella - we as readers do not know this to be untrue, so when Pip discovers that this isn’t the case, and that his entire life’s hopes have been built on a lie, we are also discovering it, and the theme of self-deception is intensely underlined with great emotional effect. If we had been told beforehand as readers, the effect would still have been profound but the crashing (and crushing) surprise would have been less effective.
This is a foundation of the Ironic genre because in Ironies everything turns out contrary to expectations - the whole story is a situational irony.
Sarcasm is a form of insulting someone; verbal irony is a little wider than that, and occurs when the intended meaning of a statement is the opposite of what is actually said. When the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings is described as a ‘trifle which Sauron fancies’, everyone listening knows that it is quite the opposite.
In dramatic and situational irony, characters are usually not aware of some dimension in a given situation. But verbal irony has a lot to do with intention - a character knowingly states the opposite of what is meant. This can reveal something about that character’s personality or motives.
Ironies of any kind tend to work only when readers or audiences are sophisticated enough to be able to spot them. If we don’t recognise, for example, that Pip’s entire dream is built on a sad infatuation, we don’t appreciate the situational irony implicit in his discovery of the real identity of his benefactor. Irony depends on overturning expectations, and we have to have the expectations in place for it to have the power to move us.
Irony forces people to read between the lines, in other words, but there have to be some lines to read between first.
For much more about Irony as a genre, see How Stories Really Work.