How Well Do You Use Irony?

An Example of Verbal Irony Made Visual

Irony is a key element in literature and it can take many forms. Fiction thrives on it, and I use it often, including in this dialogue exchange in my novel “One Way Street”: (to set the scene … the characters are two Marines during the Vietnam War, sitting in a jungle bomb crater following a break in hostilities):

* * * * *

     Blake’s eyes looked up at the jungle without raising his head.
“Was that what you wanted to talk about?”

     I’d almost forgotten the question I’d asked him. “No, I was
just thinking about a guy I used to know,” I said, “a friend…but
you wouldn’t know him…so never mind.”

     “What was his name?” Blake turned to look at me. He had
blacked his face for camouflage and muddy streaks were caked
on top of it. He could have been a clown, if he smiled. Or the
devil himself, if he was angry.

     “Albert Parker,” I said, “He used to live right across the street
from me.”

     “Good guy?”
     I thought about it a moment. “Yeah,” I said, looking over at
Blake, “a really good guy.”

     “You said he used to live across the street. Did he move,
or something?”

     “No,” I said, “he died.”
     “Aw, that’s too bad, man,” Blake said. He adjusted his
bandolier and started to lean back against the mound of dirt
behind us. “What’d he die from?”

     “Coming over here.”

* * * * *

Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is a form of irony that is expressed through a work’s structure, and it relates to character. Mark Twain used it often. When we hear Pap in Huckleberry Finn proclaim he would have voted on election day “…if I warn’t too drunk to get there,” we know we’re in the presence of a deluded character.

We know it, but he doesn’t. Every word out of Pap’s mouth seems to condemn him, but he never realizes any of it.

The degree of your character’s delusion depends on the story, of course, but think of ignorance as a sliding scale. It also includes innuendo. “Go ahead. You always do” suggests more than it states.

When a reader’s awareness of the situation differs substantially from that of the characters, their words and actions take on different … frequently contradictory … meanings. It’s often like Blake in the story fragment above, who has no idea where his companion is going with his comments.

The greater the lack of self-knowledge, the greater the dramatic irony. However, if the dramatic irony is ratcheted up too far, you’ll have an unreliable narrator. This may work for humor and satire, but it’s not so good for rendering realistic fiction, which is why I made the reference above subtle … I wanted the dialogue to sound real.

Verbal Irony
In verbal irony, the gap is between what is stated in the dialogue and what is intended. Sometimes it works by overstatement; sometimes by understatement. In either case, the words we hear do not carry the intended image.

It is often close to sarcasm. When a character says “Keep that up, and you’ll win a prize,” he may simply mean “cut it out,” but there is often more of a sting to sarcastic implication.

Situational Irony
The third type of irony, situational, is certainly the most frequently used. You think things are going one way, but the story suddenly makes a 180-degree turn. Actions have an effect opposite from what was intended, so the outcome is contrary to what was expected.

It’s important to note that a sudden reversal isn’t ironic unless there is that gap between expectation and result.

Well-crafted ironic reversals make for realistic plot movement, and character arcs that mirror human existence.

Writers whose vision is extremely ironic we know better as satirists. Satire can be a powerful weapon against conventional views, political ideologies or philosophical views. Dr. Strangelove, a merciless attack on Cold War politics written by Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern, is a classic example.

However unrealistic, the character of Major Kong, sitting astride a nuclear bomb and riding it to its target, thereby setting-off the story’s Doomsday Machine and assuring the demise of everyone, is an image most are not likely to forget.

Irony is something to be sensitive to in your fiction efforts. When it’s working, readers will surely pay attention.

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Remember Memorial Day. I’d like to remind my Gentle Readers that today is a special day, set aside to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. It’s not ironic at all to tell everyone you know who’s been in the military, “Thanks for your service.”

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Gentle Readers, my books have all garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

buy now;

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You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.

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On March 1, 2018, Rochester Media started publishing my articles about writing. The column will update twice a month. Come on over, take a look, leave a comment and let me know what you think.

On Tuesday, June 19, 2018 I will join other local area writers at the Freelance Marketplace Writers’ Group meeting at Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills.

On Saturday, July 28, 2018 I plan to participate in a book-signing during Sterlingfest, in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

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Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

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2 Responses to “How Well Do You Use Irony?”

  1. Anne Clare Says:

    Great sum-up, and you found a fantastic picture to go with it! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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