Figures of Speech: Irony (2023)

All of us have, at some point, come face to face with an ironic situation, statement, or circumstance. Intuitively, we do understand what irony is. But if you're reading this, you probably want insight into irony as a figure of speech. You're at the right place! Irony is one of the most powerful and widely used figures of speech in literature and creative writing. A basic understanding of how it is employed and how it works is essential to anyone who engages in creative writing, no matter at what level of expertise. Also, when a word is so infused into daily usage, it is good for an aspiring writer to learn more about it. So, read on to find out all the basics of irony as a figure of speech, and find tips and exercises on how to infuse irony into your own creative writing.

What is Irony?

Irony is a figure of speech wherein a gap exists between what is said and what is meant. This is a very basic description of irony paraphrased from Dev, Marwah, and Pal's definition of irony. But it does explain the crux of irony pretty well. What one says is not always what one means. While this lends difficulty to life, it lends power to literature and creative writing. If everything written in a book or in a poem were to be fully transparent and self-apparent in its meaning, it might not be a very interesting read. But when there's more to look for than the exact words on the page, the reader becomes actively involved in the dialectical (interactive) process of interpretation.

One could thus say that irony gives the reader greater power. Figuring out the usage of irony helps the reader have greater involvement with a text. In short, the effective use of irony will make your creative writing more interesting and rewarding to readers.

Also note that irony is not the same as sarcasm, even though the gap between what is said and what is meant is very significant in the case of sarcasm too. Anjana Neira Dev, Anuradha Marwah, and Swati Pal write in their explanation of irony and sarcasm that sarcasm is “a crude form of irony intended to cause pain”. In common usage, sarcasm might not always be intended to cause pain. A lot of the time, it is used for comic effect. Sarcasm is also usually used for specific utterances, sentences, or phrases, while irony can be sustained for entire situations, texts, or contexts.

Types of Irony

Irony can be of a few different types. There are 3 types of irony that you should know about. These are:

1. Verbal Irony

Verbal irony comes into play when what is said is vastly different from or even the opposite of what is meant. Usually, it is employed as a measure of criticising someone or something in a subtle manner. I would like to cite the explanation and example given by Anjana Neira Dev, Anuradha Marwah, and Swati Pal here: “Generally the use of verbal irony implies that there is something in the speaker’s tone and manner to show his/her real meaning. An example of such use of irony can be found in that noted speech of Mark Antony where he says

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,

And Brutus is an honourable man!

-Julius Caesar”

In this example from Shakespeare, Mark Antony intends to turn public opinion against Brutus. To do so, he employs verbal irony.

Another example is from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

Figures of Speech: Irony (1)

In it, he ironically talks of drastic ways in which the rich can further exploit the poor, only to expose the rampant inequity of his world.

2. Situational Irony / Irony of Situation

There are a lot of ironic situations in real life and in literature. Situational irony comes into play when there is a chasm between what something seems to be and what it really is, or between “appearance and reality, desire and its fulfilment, or between what is and should be.” (Dev, Marwah, Pal) A well-known example of this type of irony (also quoted by Dev, Marwah, and Pal) is the situation that Coleridge’s Mariner lands up in after killing the albatross:

“Water, water, everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Not any drop to drink.”

Another great example of situational irony can be found in Kate Chopin’s brilliant short story “The Story of an Hour”.

Figures of Speech: Irony (2)

In this story, a woman with a heart condition finds out about her husband’s sudden death. One would expect that she would go into shock and maybe even suffer in terms of her health. However, she is excited at the prospect of an independent life ahead. At the end of the story though, she suffers from a heart attack and dies. This happens when she finds out her husband is actually alive. I am sure you can see the irony.

3. Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony refers to the irony that exists in the gap between what a character knows and what the reader/audience knows. I mention an audience here because dramatic irony originates from Greek tragedy. When the reader/audience possesses knowledge that differs from the character’s, the experience of reading or watching becomes much more active and even profound.

A classic example of dramatic irony is present in the entirety of the Greek tragic play by Sophocles, Oedipus the King.

Figures of Speech: Irony (3)

Oedipus is under the impression that he has come to a new land and started a new life there, far away from the clutches of a disastrous prophecy. In his commitment to protecting his people, he undertakes a quest to find a murderer in his kingdom. He is unaware that he is going to end up uncovering himself as the murderer, and that he has himself ended up enabling the fulfilment of the prophecy. The reader or audience is aware of all of this, while the character Oedipus is not. The gap of awareness is significant in how the story plays out.

Another example is again from Shakespeare. In the last act of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is unaware of the fact that Juliet is not dead and is merely unconscious. This results, ultimately, in the two lovers’ deaths. The audience or reader is aware throughout that Juliet is alive.

How can You Use Irony?

Due to the nature of irony, it can be used in a variety of ways.

  • You can employ verbal irony to reveal the true nature of a character.
  • You can use verbal irony to critique the character making the utterance or the person/thing they are talking about.
  • You can use situational irony to keep your reader surprised, by going against the grain.
  • You can also use situational irony to subvert commonly held opinions and create something new.
  • You can utilise dramatic irony to help the reader be more involved in the narrative.
  • You can use different types of irony in different ways to generate humour.


Figures of Speech: Irony (4)

1. A World of Irony

Look around: daily life is full of ironic utterances, situations, and circumstances. In order to improve your creative writing, you have to observe things carefully. If something surprises you due to the difference between what is said and what it actually meant, what would normally be the case and what it actually is, or what you know to be true and the person in the actual situation knows, you have most probably hit upon irony.

2. Read and Note

Literature is a valuable resource for aspiring writers because it provides a repository of successful writing. You will find plenty of literature and other written material that uses irony. Check out Greek tragedies like Oedipus the King, works of Henrik Ibsen such as the play Ghosts, and the other examples mentioned in this article. You can also talk to other readers and look up literature that uses irony. As and when you read these and find their usages of irony, note them down for later reference.

3. Daily Writing

Each day, sit down in front of a notepad or your phone/laptop. Write down anything that you can think of, but make sure that it involves something ironic. It can either be your own creation that follows the criteria of any of the types of irony or can be something ironic you noticed or experienced. Even if you can’t find either of these, write down something that can potentially lead to irony. It might take some time, but eventually, you will be able to use irony with expertise.

Keep reading and practising, and you will surprise yourself with your own use of irony in no time.

Happy writing!

If you need ideas that will help you practice creative writing regularly, go to the writing community section on the FrontRow app for a number of story-writing prompts.

Want to learn all the basics of metaphor? Click here.

Intrigued by similes and want to use them in your writing? Learn more here.

Click here to find the ultimate guide to figures of speech.

Do you want tips from experts on all the basics and advanced-level aspects of writing? On FrontRow, you can become a part of in-depth courses that take you through everything you need to learn to become a good writer! Have a look at this writing workshop conducted by talented writer Amanda Sodhi on FrontRow, and at this exclusive lyric writing course Swanand Kirkire has created with FrontRow.

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