What is Dramatic Irony - The Silence of the Lambs - Featured - StudioBinder

Dramatic irony is one of the three main types of irony. Like verbal and situational irony, dramatic irony is an integral element of storytelling. The power a writer or director can yield with a firm grasp of dramatic irony is huge. What is dramatic irony and how does it work?

In this article, we’re going to define dramatic irony, one of the most common and popular types of irony. We will also discuss the stages of dramatic irony and a subtype called tragic irony.

A Brief Overview

Introducing dramatic irony

Let’s begin with a quick definition of dramatic irony. It’s not a complicated concept but the effect of using dramatic irony in your storytelling is huge.

Dramatic Irony Definition

What is dramatic irony?

Dramatic irony is when the audience, who have been given more information, understands a situation more clearly than the characters do. Often, this understanding leads to an element of suspense because we know the character will learn the truth eventually but we don't know when or how.

Dramatic irony can be deployed in many ways and in many genres. Comedy, horror, suspense, thrillers, dramas can all benefit from the use of dramatic irony.

What are the stages of dramatic irony?

  • Preparation 
  • Suspension
  • Resolution

When the audience knows something the characters don’t, it immediately creates tension. We lean in closer and our engagement naturally increases.

Of course, for dramatic irony to really be effective, you need to build sympathy for the characters and establish stakes that the audience will understand and care about. 

IN REVERSE

The opposite of dramatic irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows more than the characters but what is the opposite of dramatic irony?

When the character knows more than the audience. 

An example might be Sherlock Holmes, who often withholds important information from the audience until the opportune moment. 

Sherlock lays it all out

Now that we've got a better understanding idea of what dramatic irony is and how it works, let's go a little deeper into the subject.

One of the biggest questions involves the difference between dramatic and situational irony. In the next section, we’ll set the record straight.

A KEY DIFFERENCE

Situational vs. dramatic irony

Dramatic and situational irony both involve circumstances and the difference between expectations and reality. The key difference between these two forms of irony is whether or not this unexpected reality is revealed to the audience along with the character or before.

With situational irony, our discovery that our expectations haven’t been met are aligned with the characters in the story. With dramatic irony, we know well in advance that what the character expects is not the reality of the situation — and that creates tension. 

Now that we have a firm understanding of this concept, let's look at some examples of dramatic irony. As we'll see, it is a very versatile and useful storytelling device — perfect for comedy, drama and suspense.

IRONY IN ACTION

Use dramatic irony for humor

The effects of dramatic irony can be seen in any story. Watching a character operate in circumstances where they don't know the entire truth can be dramatic or suspenseful. But it can also be funny.

Misunderstandings are the bread and butter of comedy, and dramatic irony is a fantastic way to generate misunderstanding.

Our first example is from Monsters Inc. when Sully is convinced that Boo has been tossed down a garbage chute, crushed, chopped and pummeled into a cube of scrap.

Of course, we know Boo is safe and sound, making this a clear (and humorous) dramatic irony example.

Dramatic irony for laughs

Three Amigos is also built upon a premise that is a perfect example of dramatic irony. Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase play Hollywood actors who assume they have been called down to Mexico to entertain the locals. Little do they know, the situation is real and the danger is right in front of them.

Dramatic irony examples: Three Amigos

How to Use Dramatic Irony

Add dramatic irony for suspense

There is suspense inside every example of dramatic irony. We know the truth, and it's only a matter of time before the characters learn that same truth. Horror films and thrillers use this suspense all the time and to significant effect. 

The Silence of the Lambs has one of the tensest endings to any movie. Clarice is entirely vulnerable. We watch her fumble in the dark, unaware that Buffalo Bill is standing right in front of her, stalking her and in complete control of the situation. 

Clarice, in the dark in many ways

In this classic scene from The Godfather, Michael plans to kill these two men at the restaurant. Sollozzo is suspicious of Mike and pats him down before he goes to the bathroom to retrieve the gun, but there is still a mountain of tension in the scene.

We really feel the effects of dramatic irony here.

Dramatic irony at its most taut

We've reviewed some classic dramatic irony examples and now its time to explore some of its variations. In the next section, we’ll list and define the various types of dramatic irony so you can see how intricate and nuanced this concept is.

TYPES OF DRAMATIC IRONY

What is tragic irony?

Tragic irony is simply defined as dramatic irony with tragic consequences. It takes the same basic situation in which the audience knows more about the situation than the character. But in this type of dramatic irony, the character’s ignorance has dire repercussions. 

Often the audience will know about the tragedy in advance, sometimes at the very beginning of the story. Then, we watch are helpless to watch the character fulfill that promise. Romeo + Juliet is the perfect example.

Tragic irony defined

There is a lot more to explore with tragic irony, including more examples from movies and TV.

Learn more about tragic irony →

HOW TO CREATE DRAMATIC IRONY

Stages of dramatic irony

Dramatic irony functions just like suspense: it takes time. The longer we know the truth while the character remains ignorant, the greater the drama and the suspense.

Deploying dramatic irony has a structure all its own. It is, in fact, very similar to a traditional three-act structure. The three stages include Preparation, Suspension, and Resolution.

There is a lot more to explore about stages of dramatic irony, including examples from movies and TV.

Learn more about the stages of dramatic irony →

UP NEXT

Dive deeper into irony

We've covered the basics of dramatic irony but there is so much more to learn. If there is a particular form of irony you want to explore further, just follow the navigation below. Each one of these subtypes of irony belongs in every writer's toolkit.

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