The Fan's Guide to the Elements of Writing: Irony

12:54 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

It's been a while, but welcome back to the Fan's Guide to the Elements of Writing. This time, let's take a look at a very popular device: irony. We all throw that word around, we all use the device, but what are we actually talking about?

Although we tend to use the phrase "that's ironic" as a sort of blanket statement, there are actually multiple types of irony, all of which pop up in everyday life and are used by writers to create tension in a story. To get a good idea of what's what and how these devices function, let's look at the plot of the romantic comedy You've Got Mail.

The plot of You've Got Mail is far from new, dating back to 1937 and a play called Parfumerie. Later famous adaptations include the film The Shop Around The Corner, the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime, and the Broadway musical She Loves Me. The story is fairly straightforward: two people fall in love via an anonymous correspondence, unaware that, in their real lives, they can't stand each other. Complications and comedy ensue, especially once one of them learns the truth, and all is set right in the end.

Happily ever after- even for Brinkley

Even though the average viewer doesn't think of it in such terms, this movie in fact runs on two distinctive types of irony: dramatic irony and circumstantial irony. About the first half of the plot hinges on the former. Defined technically, dramatic irony is the discrepancy between what the characters understands/knows/expects and what the audience understands/knows/expects. After only a few minutes, the viewer knows that Joe and Kathleen are each other's mysterious email friends. The dramatic tension comes from the audience wondering when they're going to figure it out and what's going to happen when they do. Thus, the story is interesting because we know something that the characters don't, creating a desire to find out what happens when that discrepancy is removed. Yup, there is an actual psychological design behind storytelling.

Then, halfway through, the plot takes a sudden turn! Instead of meandering along the whole time, when just a single casual reference could clear up all the misunderstanding and reveal the truth to the characters, it switches ironies on us. When the "friends" agree to meet in real life, Joe sees Kathleen with the book and flower that they had agreed on as a signal- but she doesn't see him. From here, the story runs on circumstantial irony, which is the discrepancy between what an audience or character hopes/expects will occur and what does occur.

This works in a few ways. At this point in the movie, we know that the last thing either of these characters expects or hopes for is that the other is their secret friend. Thus, the moment when Joe discovers Kathleen is itself fraught with circumstantial irony.

Joe's face says it all. He gets the irony.

The rest of the story, in a way, is about this irony being erased, from Kathleen's perspective in particular. At first, her hope, though never stated in such a way, is that her "dear Friend" is someone, anyone except for Joe, who she loathes on a personal and professional level. Thus, the irony is high here, because there is a huge discrepancy between her desires and the truth. As the plot progresses, however, and she grows closer to Joe in real life, her desires change and grow closer and closer to the reality of the situation. All traces of irony have been erased by the time we get to this immortal line:

So there you have it: the two most common types of irony (aside from sarcasm, which is just these sorts of irony but verbalized rather than in a plot itself), all within the confines of one wonderful little rom-com. Questions? Requests for a later entry in the Fan's Guide series? Leave 'em in the comments below!