The Forms of Irony


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.

Dramatic 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