This article is about irony in fiction, when you should use it, how it is used, and what cautions to take.

Convoluted introduction

I’m going to segue into the topic in a sort of roundabout way, so please forgive me. Let’s start by considering what makes an effective shock in writing. It’s very similar to what makes a joke funny, the shock when the punchline is unexpected. You don’t laugh at jokes you know (generally) because you already know what is coming. It’s said that the analysis of humor is the habit of the humorless, so I’ll just live with the dubious distinction of being humorless and do this. Humor follows this basic formula: Set Pattern, Reinforce Pattern, Break Pattern.

One day José, Marco, and blond Joe are taking their lunch break, on top of the unfinished eight story building the construction company is building. José opens his lunch box and exclaims, “Jésus, if I get a burrito for lunch one more time I’m going to jump right off this building.” Marco opens his lunch box, looks inside, and says, “Mamma mia, blessed virgin Mary, if I get spaghetti for lunch one more time, I’ll jump with you.” Joe opens his box, and groans, “Jesus Christ, if I get a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch one more time, I’m coming with you guys.”

The next day, José opens his lunch box, finds the burrito, crosses himself hurriedly, then steps off the scaffolding. Marco opens his lunch box, sees the spaghetti, and jumps off as well. Joe opens his lunch box, finds the cheese sandwich, and throws himself down.

At the funeral for the three men, José‘s wife is grieving. “If I only had known, I would have made him something different, like an enchilada, or taco.” Marco’s wife is also grieving. “I wish I had known, then I might have made him pizza.” Both wives looked over at Joe’s wife who says, “Hey, don’t look at me. Joe packs his own lunch.”

I think you’ll be more than capable of seeing the formula at work there.

So what is my point here? You shouldn’t be trying to write your stories like jokes, but shock is a powerful tool in fiction. When your story subverts your reader’s expectations, your story shocks, which is both memorable and enjoyable.

Irony as a literary device

Irony can only be used effectively when used with intent, so it is important to understand what irony is. Beginning writers can often mistake the meaning of irony, often what they really mean is oxymoron. So let’s define irony.

Irony: a literary device which presents a conflict between appearance and reality.

What this means isn’t entirely clear, so I’ll try to clarify by illustrating the three kinds of irony.

Verbal irony

Verbal irony is the kind we are most familiar with in daily life. This is often referred to as sarcasm. Verbal irony occurs when a character says one thing, but means another. The Sarcasm Society employs sarcasm in their slogan, “We would love to hear what you think”. Another example, from the book Guest of the Nation (whose title itself is ironic, because it is about an Englishman who is a NRA hostage), is “The Irish can say ‘go to hell’ in such a way that you look forward to the trip”.

Words of caution

It’s very easy and very tempting to use verbal irony in your writing, but there are two points to be aware of.

Fiction tries to recreate the impact of a situation. Saying something untrue to mean something else can accidentally remove the suspension of disbelief. Employing verbal irony creates a mental barrier the reader has to get past in order to understand the situation. The reader has to ‘get it’ in order to understand the scene correctly. Using irony poorly can simply lead to confusion on the part of the reader. Be careful.

Also beware of characters who are often sarcastic. This isn’t sympathetic, and if your character routinely uses sarcasm to belittle others, you’ve got to be very careful. Over do it and your character ends up being a jerk, and your reader stops liking him. Now, there is nothing wrong with unsympathetic characters, but if you want a sympathetic character, than you’d better watch the sarcasm. Make sure sarcasm is true to the character, and that it doesn’t alienate the reader.

Do know that self-deprecating irony can create very sympathetic characters though. Self deprecation is always a winning tactic.

Dramatic irony

Dramatic irony occurs when we know something that the characters don’t. The classic example is Romeo and Juliet. We all expected Juliet to reawaken, but to Romeo it appeared she was dead, and so he takes the poison. Appearance differs from reality, and we are aware of it, creating the dramatic irony in R&J. Dramatic irony is most often employed to create tragedy or comedy.

Dramatic irony is employed in Oedipus the King. We all know that Oedipus is the murderer he seeks, but he doesn’t. This dramatic irony creates suspense, as the reader tries to anticipate when he will finally learn the truth of the matter.

Situational irony

Situational irony is the subversion of our expectations to produce a result with a sick ‘rightness’. To use a slightly politicized example, Larry Craig, a long time opponent of gay rights, was arrested in the Minneapolis airport for soliciting sex, and it was later revealed he had participated in lewd acts previously.

Situational irony is also present in O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi, in which a girl cuts off her hair to buy her boyfriend a watch chain, and the boyfriend sells his watch to buy the girl a set of combs.


Five minute writing prompt: A daughter has been promised a trip to Alaska if she makes straight As, and she has been working towards this all year. The father has a gambling addiction, and gambled away the money he had saved for the trip. Now the daughter claims to have straight As, although she is lying. The father obviously doesn’t want to admit he lost the money. Write the ensuing scene.

If you followed the prompt you’ll note that the scene was either comedic or tragic, and whichever your’s turned out to be, it probably seemed to quite natural. Irony very readily leads to this. Irony should be a tool employed to create drama and interest in your story. Sarcasm used as a tool to belittle others should be used with caution.


  1. Virgil on 23 October 2008, 08:43 said:

    I’ll write the prompt later when I have more time, but at first I thought the title read ‘Friction and Irony’… which would be interesting to compare.

  2. Snow White Queen on 23 October 2008, 10:08 said:

    nice article…very clear and easy to understand.

    i think my favorite story with irony is probably ‘ransom of red chief’ by o.henry.

  3. Addie on 23 October 2008, 12:13 said:

    SlyShy, are you sure that self-deprecation is always a winning technique? What about Miss Charlotte Bartlett?

  4. SlyShy on 23 October 2008, 12:19 said:

    I haven’t read A Room with a View, so I don’t know how well it worked out there. In general, when I make statements like “Don’t use hyperbole” what I mean is, don’t use it unless you are sure it is appropriate for the story.

    After reading Reading Like a Writer I realized there really are no rules. What Francine Prose basically does is present what she thinks are rules of good writing, gives an example that illustrates that rule, and then gives an examples that contradicts that rule.

    So I feel like any advice given is only applicable to the majority of stories and not the whole.

  5. Addie on 23 October 2008, 12:31 said:

    Oh. That makes sense … I guess there’s always an exception to a rule and maybe she’s it for this one. I really like Mr. Bennet, though, and he uses self-deprecating irony, so I certainly see what you mean in the article. Anyway, good job; I’ve never entirely understood irony and this article was very clear about it.

  6. SlyShy on 23 October 2008, 12:37 said:

    Ah, Mr. Bennet. Hard core Austen fans will want to hurt me for saying this, but if Mr. Bennet weren’t in the first page, I probably wouldn’t have finished the book. That first exchange was absolutely great.

  7. Addie on 23 October 2008, 12:44 said:

    It’s one of my favorite first chapters of all time. He’s just too funny. Angela’s so-called wit looks so pathetic beside Mr. Bennet.

    And I’m a hard core Austen fan … but no worries. ;) He’s one of the best she ever did.

  8. Amelie on 23 October 2008, 14:18 said:

    Overall an elightening article, but I just want to add one caveat about self-deprecating irony: Yes, it can draw sympathy for a character, but like anything else, it is best used sparingly. A character who is constantly putting him or herself down, especially in front of other characters, can begin to seem emotionally needy. And I don’t know about you guys, but needy people are supremely annoying. So unless you want your character to bug the hell out of everyone he or she interacts with, be careful of how you use self deprecation.

  9. SlyShy on 23 October 2008, 15:40 said:

    Yup. People like Bella don’t get sympathy. But that’s also because she isn’t funny.

  10. Addie on 23 October 2008, 16:58 said:

    But there’s nothing ironic about Bella, is there? (I mean, nothing that the author intended as irony.)

    And she does use self-deprecation an awful lot, but a lot of the time it sounds like she’s actually reveling in it – or that the author is, anyway. For instance, having Bella say that she should have been blond and sporty, but was actually dark-haired and pale-skinned. It sounds to me like the author was actually using it to show how ‘unique’ Bella is. So it’s more like self-glorifying-deprecation (a tactic I dislike, and associate with Cecil Vyse).

  11. Virgil on 23 October 2008, 17:03 said:

    It’s all the same annoying gibberish to me. I can’t stand to even look at a Twilight book anymore, and they’re still really popular.

  12. Snow White Queen on 23 October 2008, 19:59 said:

    gibberish is exactly the right word.

  13. Addie on 23 October 2008, 20:29 said:

    I was first put onto Twilight by a wildly enthusiastic friend. I bought the book, read it three times, then stuffed it away someplace because I didn’t know what else to do with it. So disappointing … I haven’t read it since.

  14. Snow White Queen on 23 October 2008, 22:31 said:

    the first time i read it, i thought ‘well, it’s not that bad, except it’s way too mushy, bella annoys the heck outta me, and i’m really getting tired of endless descriptions of edward’s beauty. the next one is sure to be better.’

    never before was i so wrong.

  15. Addie on 24 October 2008, 01:03 said:

    I haven’t even read any of the sequels, but I looked up their plots and then I looked up some reviews. Looks like they’re not so much a wreck as an avalanche. I mean, does anything actually happen, besides swooning and fretting and whatever-shall-I-do-ing?

  16. Snow White Queen on 24 October 2008, 01:08 said:

    well, bella jumps off a cliff in new moon.

    fun stuff. (until i realized that she wasn’t dead. rats! thwarted again!)

  17. Addie on 24 October 2008, 01:19 said:

    Yeah I read about that. Of all the stupid things to do …

    After that, how can SM honestly expect us to still believe Bella is smart? It’s ridiculous. She’s about as smart as Juliet.

    And Edward, trying to commit suicide! He’s about as smart as Romeo, and believe me, that’s not a compliment.

  18. Hedwig Widrig on 24 October 2008, 01:32 said:

    Could you imagine, though, if one of these silly characters actually managed to die? We’d get to hear, in sickening detail, how shocked and how sad everyone is about the loss. Probably better just to shut the book at that point.

  19. Addie on 24 October 2008, 01:37 said:

    Ooh, good point. They moan quite enough while they’re all alive and well. If one of the starcrossed lovers died … well then the other would too, obviously, they’d kill themself, but we’d have to listen to a chapter of ‘oh, OH!’ before they did. Yikes.

  20. Hedwig Widrig on 24 October 2008, 01:42 said:

    Or they’d be condemned to a broken, meaningless life void of love or beauty, and we could decide whether we cared. Either way, not a pretty picture. Not that it couldn’t be an interesting picture, at least, in the right hands.

  21. Addie on 24 October 2008, 01:48 said:

    But not in this author’s hands. And it would only be interesting if they were actually interesting characters, so their decisions would be meaningful. Frankly, I really just don’t care about any of them. Actually, I think I’m with SWQ, I’d rather she hadn’t been saved. She is SO annoying.

  22. Hedwig Widrig on 24 October 2008, 01:56 said:

    Probably not. I hesitate to criticize an author I’ve not actually read, but there does seem to be a strong conjecture about this one. I’m just trying to come up with a good author who has dealt with this scenario, apart from Shakespeare. I’m sure it’s been done, but I’m drawing a blank.

  23. Addie on 24 October 2008, 02:06 said:

    Well, let’s see … Noyes did a good job, I thought, in “The Highwayman.” Of course that isn’t a novel, though, only a poem. In Frankenstein Victor’s wife, Elizabeth, dies on their wedding night, and he gets a bit frenzied.

  24. bonjo on 21 April 2010, 17:42 said:

    ya i know