What Is Irony and How the Heck Do Screenwriters Use It?

by Ken Miyamoto on January 11, 2020

What are the clearest definitions of irony, and how can screenwriters utilize this powerful tool in their screenplays?

Most people know an ironic moment when they see it. Yet when you ask them to explain irony, it's a difficult task. Take a look at this moment in Reality Bites. Most of us will likely sympathize with Winona Ryder's character.

"It's when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning," Ethan Hawke's character effortlessly explains.

But even when we know the dictionary definition, and when we know it when we see it, irony is pretty tricky to explain — which in of itself is ironic in its own right.

Here we offer three simple definitions of applicable cinematic irony that screenwriters can utilize with significant and powerful effect.

Verbal Irony

Verbal Irony is an excellent tool that you can use within your screenplay's dialogue. It occurs when somebody says one thing but means something else.

Often used by sarcastic characters in movies and television, verbal irony in dialogue can showcase a character's attitude towards the world or another character. For example, if a person is tired of their roommate's messy tendencies, they may say to them, "You know, you should really hold off on some of the cleaning. Let me do some of it for a change." 

It can also be used by a character to present some levity in an otherwise sad situation. For example, if a character has had a series of unfortunate events throughout their day, and then something even worse happens, they could say, "Wow. The day was already amazing enough, but now I'm really feeling the love!"

Verbal irony is a powerful writing tool to use because it can enhance your dialogue while offering some characterization as well.

It's the most basic element of irony that you can use — but an effective one.

Situational Irony

Situational Irony plays more into the story aspects of your screenplays. It is present in moments where something happens that is the complete opposite of what is expected, given the information that was first introduced.

This is where you, the screenwriter, can play with the audience and their own expectations.

If we know that a villain has a device to blow someplace up as they walk away from the location in cinematic fashion, and when they press the button, and nothing happens, that's situational irony.

It can be subtle and played for laughs, or it can be impactful and offer the twists and turns that the audience loves.

You can also use situational irony to play with the audience's expectations, which allows you to keep them guessing throughout your screenplay. It's a thrilling element to use because you're always taking the audience down one seemingly predictable pathway until you shock their system by presenting precisely the opposite of what their expectations were.

Situational irony also drives concept-creation as well.

If you look at Pixar's Monsters Inc., it's ironic to see the monsters from our closets as kind and gentle beings that are actually afraid of children.

If you look at The Incredibles, you'll notice that these otherwise all-powerful, unrelatable superheroes really live the average life that we all live.

Whether you use it within your stories or to create concepts for stories to tell, situational irony is something that all writers can and should use.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic Irony is a prolific and powerful plotting and story structure tool because it gives information to the audience and allows them to watch in suspense (thrillers), horror (horror movies), hilarity (comedies), and intrigue (dramas) as the characters navigate through the plot with the audience knowing full well that something lurks in the darkness or a secret is sure to be revealed.

Learn the best way to structure your screenplay with this free guide.

In Jaws, we know that something is lurking underneath the water — but the tourists don't.

In Halloween, we know that the person underneath the sheet is not the girl's boyfriend — it's Michael Myers.

In Liar Liar, we know that Fletcher can't lie because his son made a wish that he couldn't for 24 hours.

In the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, we know that this seemingly innocent child is going to soon become the darkest Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader.

Dramatic irony puts the audience into a position of power — as far as giving them certain knowledge the characters don't know — but at the same time, they are kept in the dark because they don't know how the characters will discover that information, which keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Use It Well, Use It Often

Isn't it ironic to think that even though most great movies and television shows use one form of irony or another, many writers still don't have a grasp of what irony is?

Yet the definitions are so simple and straightforward.

Verbal Irony occurs when someone says something that is the complete opposite of what they mean.

Situational Irony occurs when what actually happens is not what is expected to happen, given the information already shared.

Dramatic Irony occurs when the audience is aware of something that the characters are not.

Generally speaking...

Verbal irony is for dialogue. Situational irony is for concept and story. And Dramatic irony is a plotting device utilized through the structure of your screenplays.

Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies

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