IRONY: A Writer’s Best Friend

Tokyo 1st day 110

“Here’s some deep irony, Lieutenant.”

“Eh, how’s that?”

“The murder weapon was purchased by the victim—for his wife’s protection from bad guys. He took business trips. He worked late. He…”

“Met his mistress, as he was doing the night of his demise.”

“Yep, the mistress sang like the proverbial canary.”

“So, lover boy gets out of bed, goes to work, meets girlfriend for drinks and late-night business, leaves his cell phone at the office, comes home a little drunk—his shirt tail stuck in his zipper, drops his keys, can’t find them in the dark, tries a back window and—bam!”

“His innocent wife, thinking he’s a bad guy, shoots him.”

“Exactly! His wife shoots him—the bad guy—with the very gun he provided.”

“Ironic indeed.”

Dear blogger friends, forgive my simple example of irony. The above is known as “situational” irony, where one’s actions work in opposition to one’s intentions. Another well-known use of irony is “verbal” irony which occurs when one’s words convey a meaning in opposition to a literal meaning.

Verbal irony can occur consciously, as in an insult, which is often sarcastic in nature. Or unconsciously, as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet’s mother says in anger over her daughter’s refusal to marry Paris. “I would the fool were married to her grave!”

And of course, the Grandfather of all ironic speeches would be almost everything Oedipus says in the first half of Socrates’ great play, Oedipus Rex.

I remember reading some dense tome where the author stated that the Modern Age could or should be called the Age of Irony. The author posited that the driving trope for literature between say 1918 and 1960 was irony. Unfortunately, a great deal of that ironic literature is also incredibly depressing—most ironic situations tend to lean heavily toward misery. Why is that? I think, and I’m also interested in your thoughts on this, that irony reveals the “tricky-ness” of human existence, as well as that “dark” side: the meaninglessness of life. My students response to that: “Awww, man.”

For instance, after overcoming great odds, the hero gets the girl, only to find out that she’s dying of some rare disease…or vice versa! I remember reading a short story by Sartre, the French existentialist. The hero is suspected of being a spy for the French Resistance in Paris. He is interrogated by a ruthless Nazi officer who wants to know where the French Resistance leader is hiding.  The hero has no idea. He knows of the leader but doesn’t have a clue as to his whereabouts. He says as much, over and over. Pushed to an extreme, he finally names a meaningless place. He gives the Nazi an address, off the top of his head. It’s all absurd. He has no idea where the leader is. They search. The French resistance is there! He is captured and taken away to be shot. Irony!

Irony screams in laughter at our efforts to be good or moral or even just happy. Life is a bitch!

“But wait,” you say. “Does it have to be so? Does irony always have to be so demoralizing?” The answer is no. It doesn’t.  And no, I’m not being ironic—really. I’m not. Honestly!

There’s two other possibilities. One, use irony as a powerful tool in your narrative, i.e., as the absurd error the antagonist makes that brings about his own doom instead of the hero’s. Hence, at the end of the work, the hero is happy. His love is happy, and the reader is happy. Is that such a bad thing?

For the next possibility, let’s return to the dialogue at the beginning of this post. (The man who gave his wife a gun to kill bad guys.) If I drew that scene out into a novel, then I could insert into the dialogue of the philandering husband, the wife, the mistress, a few lines of verbal irony. BUT, and this is very important, the reader will not know that what the husband says early on is ironic.

Irony is understood only after the fact, and therein lies its power. I remember when I read Oedipus Rex for the first time, I was absolutely speechless. I didn’t know the plot. I had zero background in Greek myth. I was stunned when I finished that play. I really was. I had to read it a second time, to experience the work fully.

When a novel is well-conceived, beautifully written, and full of meaning, many readers will read it a second time and third, on and on. I also believe, when it’s done well and with sensitivity, irony can bring a reader “back” to your novel. And isn’t that our dream goal?

It’s quite possible—that your work is so well done and possesses a depth of meaning that a reader returns to it after a span of time to read it again. I think many readers do so. I do. Even though I read it years ago, I’m re-reading Jane Austen’s Emma, right now. I love it. It’s chock full of mild irony, revealing folly and misunderstanding, but it does so with a subtle smile.

What are your thoughts on irony as a writer’s tool? Have you utilized it? Resented it? Let’s talk.

26 thoughts on “IRONY: A Writer’s Best Friend

  1. shewrite63

    Thank you for this prompt. I used irony or rather, poetic justice in my novel. The antagonist who is illegally chopping trees trips over an exposed pine root and cracks his neck on a tree stump. Talk about a spoiler! It’s the same root that the young protagonist and forest protector stumbled over while walking with her secret love a few months before; he catches her by the arm to prevent a fall. ❤

    Yeah, irony, universal justice or poetic justice?

    Got your interest? You can follow the novel's domain and blog here: http://yearoftherabbit.ca/

    Theresa

    Liked by 4 people

    Reply
    1. Paul Post author

      Whoa! Very interesting and effective use of novel. That’s the thing about irony.–it can be construed in many ways. 🙂 which of course allows the reader a bit of play room which is a good thing.

      Thanks for reading and the great reply. I’m gonna check out that link. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
    1. Paul Post author

      And thank you for the kind words. I have used irony but only on a very limited basis. It’s tricky business and can get out of control, very quickly. If the irony is too heavy-handed then the reader is put off. But when it’s done with a subtle hand, as it were, it’s really effective.

      and again thank you for your support and for reading and responding. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
  2. Rachel McKee

    Great post Paul! Do you remember when Alanis Morissette came of with her hit “Ironic”? This song drove a lot of people crazy because they didn’t agree that the examples of irony in her song were indeed ironic. They argued that they were just unfortunate occurrences. This has me thinking of that old argument. What a great prompt!

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      As a matter of fact while I was putting the post together, I came across that same issue. Irony can be tricky! Morissette’s song, yeah, a lot of argument with that. Hmmm, some of it is a stretch. So it rains on your wedding day. Just bad luck? Now it CAN morph into verbal irony when the best friend says the day before: “tomorrow will start a life of sunshine!”

      And the argument that nothing in the song is ironic hence it’s all ironic…given the title.

      I don’t know. I tend to go with the oldie Goldies for good examples of irony. Have you read Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome.” I remember the ending being terribly ironic and terribly depressing.

      Thanks a ton for the positive feedback…not being ironic! hahaha! See how dangerous irony can be? 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
  3. Tina Williams

    I’ve used irony primarily as the “twist ending” in some of my stories. I have a feeling some may have been a bit heavy-handed, and ultimately didn’t work. You’re right, you have to be careful with it. And by the way, I love “Emma” too!

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      You are so right, Tina, to mention the “twist ending.” Irony does work very well in that situation where suddenly the truth of a matter comes forward and the protagonist or antagonist is shocked along with the reader. It works!

      Oh yeah, “Emma” is an amazing work. I’ve had a set of Austen’s novels for years and read Emma” some years ago, so re-reading is a great experience.

      Thanks for reading. Your remarks are always valuable.

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
  4. Bea dM

    Glad I came across this post. Irony is useful in life to deal with a lot of its absurdity, and I enjoy it as a reader. I’m trying to find a more authentic voice as a writer, and mild forms of irony definitely beckon, though striking the right balance is tricky.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. Paul Post author

      It is tricky. Too much heavy-handed irony comes off as contrivance. But when it works, it’s awesome! Keep writing, that voice will out.

      Thanks for reading and replying. It means so much. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
  5. Moushmi Radhanpara

    As a writer, I obviously cannot comment on this technique, but as a reader it has always been interesting to read plots where irony has been abundantly used. For me it is impressive and it builds up my interest too, just like it might have happened with you when you read Oedipus Rex for the first time. When I read it, I already knew the plot, so not so much o a surprise for me. But when it comes to novels and plays which I do not know about, I do like the use of irony, be it dramatic, situational or verbal.
    Though my favorite has always been Shakespeare, specially Macbeth.

    Liked by 4 people

    Reply
    1. Paul Post author

      Thank you so much, Moushmi, for such a wonderful reply. I agree with you. Irony intensifies. It will lead you astray then tap you on the shoulder or sometimes kick you in the behind!
      You mention Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I’m in complete agreement. It too is a huge favorite of mine, along with Othello.

      Thank you for reading. It’s always so good to hear from you. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

      Reply
  6. jrose88

    This post immediately reminded me of an episode of Friends.

    Monica: Wow, isn’t it ironic that David would show up on the same day that you and Mike exchange keys?

    Phoebe: (sarcastically) Uhuh… Yeah…!, you know. And given my life long search for irony, you can imagine how happy I am.

    I think Phoebe would completely agree with you about irony screaming in laughter at our efforts to be good or moral or even just happy.

    Liked by 2 people

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  7. michnavs

    This is such an interesting post Paul..yes, i agree with everything that you have said here…in my case i use subtle irony to bring out the inner self of my characters ..its nice to make make fun out of a bitter situation or character. Its even true in real life: when one is faced with an unfortunate situation he will try to be stable at first, but once a bit of bitter ego has been touched he will start to retaliate and act differently..

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Paul Post author

      You’re close. I was an English major of the 60s; so in college, we read the classics. Some contemporary stuff like John Barth, but most of my profs felt that great literature started with Homer and ended with Faulkner. Very good observation!

      Liked by 2 people

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  8. Deb

    Oh I love irony…it’s kinda like karma…don’t you think? I think irony can also be witty and I appreciate good wit. I loved Emma…what a great book…enjoy reading it again. Plus isn’t it just delicious to say “oh the irony of it all…” 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. Cynthia Guenther Richardson

    Yes, I enjoy and have employed irony but when it is used too often or used in a mediocre or worse manner it is tedious. I thus think when it is well-positioned in a story arc or used sparingly and with razor precision–even when it is read as a more subtle cue or point– it delivers the best punch.

    Liked by 2 people

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  10. Madeeha

    In movies and in books, I always look for complex and layered characters. Irony is something which you have explained well in your post and I liked what you said in your comment that use of irony could be a tricky bussiness.
    Reading powerful lines in Oedipus Rex was a frughtful experience for me..

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. Smitha V

    I haven’t ever used irony. Funny, how I’ve enjoyed reading books that have it as an element but never included it in my own writing. I intend to now, because of your post. Thank you Paul. You really are a wonderful teacher.🙏

    Liked by 1 person

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