Irony is a bit slippery for many writers. Most of us think we know what it is, but when pressed to define it, we find ourselves fumbling like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites:
Though the definition of irony is quite simple, true understanding of it does not seem to come easy. Irony is simply an incongruity between the literal and implied meaning (sorry Alanis: NOT the difference between expectations and reality (link to: http://youtu.be/Jne9t8sHpUc)).
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience has knowledge that the characters do not, putting them one step ahead in the plot. It can also occur when the audience has a different understanding of events than the characters do.
Dramatic irony can deepen the themes of a story, move the plot forward, or provide important characterization. You can also use it to create tension.
Some famous examples of dramatic irony include:
- In Romeo and Juliet, after Juliet refuses to marry Paris, her mother becomes infuriated and says “I would the fool were married to her grave.” Of course, Juliet does become “married to her grave” in a sense because her love of and marriage to Romeo leads to her tragic death. There are many more examples of dramatic irony throughout the play.
- In Oedipus the King, Oedipus searches for the person who murdered the king, not knowing that it is he himself — yet the audience does know.
- In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello even while he rages about her suspected infidelity and then kills her.
There are also many notable examples of dramatic irony in screenplays:
- In Forrest Gump, the viewer understands the historical importance of all the “accidents” and fortunate circumstances that Forrest stumbles into, even though he thinks they are just interesting stories.
- In The Truman Show, the audience knows that Truman’s life is part of a reality television show, though he does not.
- In the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds, the audience knows that there are Jews hiding under the floorboards though Landa does not. Once he discovers it, the audience knows what will happen next though those hiding under the floor do not because they do not speak English.
There are many ways that you can use dramatic irony in your own stories. You can create dramatic irony by:
- Using contrasts. When you have a naive character trying to make it in the big city, or you have a foreigner arriving in a new land where they don’t know the language or the customs, you set up a lot of opportunities for dramatic irony.
- Use flashbacks and flash forwards. By revealing something in the past or the future, you may show the audience something that the characters do not. For example, in the television show Smallville, dramatic irony is created because the teenage Clark Kent does not yet know that he will become Superman and does not yet know that his friend Lex Luthor will become his enemy.
- Use historic events and characters. Look at Inglorious Basterds and Forrest Gump. When you use historic events and characters in your story, your audience automatically knows a lot that you can choose to allow your characters to know or not.
- Use karma. They say that what goes around comes around. Maybe your character has been guilty of committing some crime and then becomes the victim of it. This doesn’t have to be an actual “crime.” It can be something as simple as betraying a friend or lying to a loved one.
Create a web of deceit. Think of political thrillers and family dramas. These are the stories like Oedipus Rex and King Lear and Othello that have many characters competing for their own interests and lying to one another in order to get them. The situation sets up many opportunities for dramatic irony.
There are many more ways that you can use dramatic irony in your story, either through the dialogue, the characterization or the plot itself. Explore your story for opportunities to create dramatic irony so you can add another layer of complexity and make it more compelling for your audience.