Isn’t It Ironic?

12 Sep

My love of language leads to a discussion of irony in writing.

First I’ll get the difference between irony and sarcasm out of the way. Sarcasm is irony that is meant to be cruel at the expense of someone else. One quote I found was: “Sarcasm is verbal irony in its most bitter and destructive form.”

This has “walking a fine line” written all over it. This is where a person might say something sarcastic fully believing they are just having fun or teasing, but it hurts another (see the definition of verbal irony and the example below). Tread carefully.

Irony is an implied discrepancy between what is said and what is meant. The use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning; a statement or situation where the meaning is contradicted by the appearance or presentation of the idea.

Three kinds of irony*:

1. Verbal irony is when an author says one thing and means something else. You say to your husband, “thank you so much for helping me with the dishes” when he hasn’t moved from the couch.
2. Dramatic irony is when an audience perceives something that a character in the literature does not know. We know the bad guy is going to get the girl and we’re screaming, “No, don’t go in there.”
3. Irony of situation is a discrepancy between the expected result and actual results. When you straighten your hair and it rains, or you wash your floors and the dogs track mud all over them are both examples.

Some more examples are here:


A favorite example of mine that shows situational irony is in a song by Alanis Morrisette called “Isn’t it Ironic?” My favorite verse within the song is:

A traffic jam, when you’re already late
A no smoking sign on your cigarette break
It’s like ten thousand spoons, when all you need is a knife
It’s meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful wife
And isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?
A little too ironic? Yeah, I really do think

Complete lyrics at

Perhaps the reason irony works so well in writing is that it is often present as we navigate through life.

How many times does irony play out in our daily activities? Maybe you get up early to shop a sale because the perfect pair of pants is at that store. You set your alarm on a Saturday, arrange for your husband to wrangle the kids, drive to the store…and they don’t have your size.

Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

You apply for a new job. The selection process is quite rigorous and involves a skills test, initial interview, background check, secondary interview, reference check, and final interview. Finally, you get the job…and hate it. It pays better, better hours, and you’re unchallenged or the office culture isn’t a fit for you.

Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara

In your writing, you can use irony to affect your characters’ choices and actions. The book that comes to my mind immediately as an example of using irony is GONE WITH THE WIND. Scarlett spent most of the book pining after Ashley. She betrayed anyone who got in the way of her pursuit of him. When she got him, she realized she didn’t love him.

Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

Like all writing conventions, it is more effective if you use a light hand when applying. Do you have a favorite book that demonstrates irony? Have you ever used it in your writing?


Posted by on September 12, 2011 in character development, Idaho, writing


Tags: , , , ,

23 responses to “Isn’t It Ironic?

  1. Carley Ash

    September 12, 2011 at 6:55 AM

    Very interesting. Thank you Janis.

  2. Janis McCurry

    September 12, 2011 at 7:05 AM

    My pleasure, Carley.

  3. Meredith Conner

    September 12, 2011 at 7:05 AM

    Ah, Janis, no wonder I like you. I love both irony and sarcasm in it’s lightest and least cruel form. I wish they had a font for both of them. I use both of them all the time in my writing. My current WIP involves a woman who runs a dating agency and her first Very Important Client winds up dead . . . on her doorstep. Sadly ironic.

  4. P. L. Parker

    September 12, 2011 at 7:15 AM

    Perfect irony – I’d given up on men, happy to stay home and mope. Girlfriend gets stood up, wants to go out (she’s already fixed up). Okay, after much prompting, I go. Meet my husband of 21 years that night! Isn’t it ironic. Great post! Very interesting!

    • Janis McCurry

      September 12, 2011 at 11:29 AM

      P.L., that’s a great true story about how irony runs through out lives.

  5. Peggy Staggs

    September 12, 2011 at 9:10 AM

    Amazing how things work. A word said in jest that hurts, an unexpected outcome, all very useful tools. Thanks for the interesting post.

  6. Liz Fredericks

    September 12, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    Thanks Janis! I’ve not seen the subtle distinction between irony and sarcasm made so clearly. Nice job!

    • Janis McCurry

      September 12, 2011 at 11:30 AM

      You’re welcome. I have to remember to watch my sarcasm!

  7. johannaharness

    September 12, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    I always look forward to reading your posts, Janis. Your love of language jumps off the page.

    • Janis McCurry

      September 12, 2011 at 11:30 AM

      I appreciate your comment. I truly love language.

  8. Chris Bardell (@chrisbardell)

    September 12, 2011 at 10:50 AM

    There’s a long-standing debate about whether the situations referred to in the Alanis track are (strictly speaking) ‘irony’. Arguably they’re just inconveniences, not ironic situations.

    See and elsewhere.

    • Janis McCurry

      September 12, 2011 at 11:31 AM

      Fair point. I imagine it depends on the degree to which it affects the person (s) involved. Thanks for the “rest of the story.”

      • Chris Bardell (@chrisbardell)

        September 12, 2011 at 1:32 PM

        I think the causality aspect is perhaps one indicator of true irony…

        “A ‘no smoking’ sign on your cigarette break” is not irony.

        “A ‘no smoking’ sign on your cigarette break (after you, yourself, had campaigned, before you started smoking, to have ‘no smoking’ signs put up in that location)” is (maybe) irony. But it makes for crappy lyrics!

        Great post & topic.

        • Janis McCurry

          September 12, 2011 at 5:08 PM

          I agree. The degree of importance makes the case for what is and what isn’t irony.

          Very cool discussion. Thanks for coming on board.

  9. Suzie Quint

    September 12, 2011 at 1:03 PM

    Then there’s behavioral irony. Like when I go to the gym but park as close to the door as I can.

  10. Mary Vine

    September 12, 2011 at 3:48 PM

    I like how you named and defined the three kinds of irony. Good read. Thanks.

  11. Janis McCurry

    September 12, 2011 at 5:10 PM

    Mary, I didn’t really know the three kinds until I researched them. I love learning new things.

  12. Lynn Mapp

    September 12, 2011 at 7:33 PM

    Janis, I too loved the details you’ve given to illustrate your points. Thank you.

    • Janis

      September 12, 2011 at 8:06 PM

      Glad you liked it.

  13. Clarissa Southwick

    September 14, 2011 at 7:29 AM

    Sorry to be so slow to comment. It seems all my efforts to save time actually end up making me late 🙂 Great topic, Janis!


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