We’ve all heard of irony. We hear phrases like “Isn’t it ironic how…” incessantly. And yet, for all its ubiquity, irony remains a tricky term that gets misused over and over again. Understanding what irony means, and what it doesn’t mean, can allow you to further appreciate its use in storytelling, and apply its lessons to your own writing. So what is irony? And how can we use it?

Watch: 3 Types of Irony Every Storyteller Should Know

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What is irony?

Irony Meaning

Before we go any further, let’s set the record straight. Chances are, most uses of “irony” you’ve heard in everyday conversation are incorrect. See for yourself.


What is irony?

Irony refers to when the appearance of something is different from what is actually happening or meant. It can arise in many forms. In dialogue, for example, irony is when someone says something but means something else.

Irony is everywhere, both in narratives and our everyday lives. It can be used to punctuate humor, to create dramatic tension, to emphasize a theme, and much more.

3 Types of Irony:

  • Verbal irony
  • Dramatic irony
  • Situational irony

Even with this definition handy, it may be hard to wrap your mind around what irony actually looks like. Let’s look at each of the three types of the rhetorical device.

What is irony in dialogue?

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is the form of irony that you are most likely going to run into in your day-to-day life. It refers to when someone says something but means the exact opposite.

Say your coworker approaches you at the water cooler on Friday and says, “Man, after this long week, I can’t wait to do my taxes this weekend.” Unless you know your coworker as someone who loves to do taxes, you can probably safely assume they are utilizing verbal irony. They say they can’t wait to do their taxes, but they really mean the opposite: they are not looking forward to it.

Verbal irony is a frequent tool in comedy. Take a look at this scene from Mean Girls and see if you can spot the literary device:

Mean Girls verbal irony  •  What is irony?

Regina George says, “I love your skirt,” but it’s obvious that she is being ironic. Her next line, “That is the ugliest effing skirt I’ve ever seen” makes it even more clear.

Verbal irony is great for a quick punchline or piece of dialogue that establishes a character (or as Mean Girls shows us, both). Let’s look at another form of irony which can be a bit more complicated.

What does irony mean in stories?

Dramatic Irony

Where verbal irony can be found both in art and real life, dramatic irony is more limited to the former. This category refers to when an audience has an important piece of information that a character in a narrative does not.

When discussing how to build suspense, Alfred Hitchcock famously lays out a situation that highlights why dramatic irony can be so powerful in storytelling. From Hitchcock/Truffaut:

  • Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it… In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the secret.

What Hitchcock is talking about here is dramatic irony. The audience knows the bomb is there, but the characters do not. Hence, tension is created.

This form of irony, therefore, can be found all over storytelling. One particularly effective example is Titanic. The dramatic irony looks over the entire first section of the film: we know the ship is going to sink, and the characters don’t.

This dramatic irony influences how the audience views the love story at the center of the film. It is beautiful and fleeting, doomed from the start.

What is Irony Dramatic irony in Titanic StudioBinder

Dramatic irony in Titanic  •  What is irony?

Now, let’s zoom out a little more and look at our final form of irony.

Types of irony

Situational Irony

Situational irony typically happens on a larger scale than its verbal and dramatic counterparts, often occurring over the course of an entire narrative. This is when a character works toward one goal, but their actions end up leading them to the opposite outcome.

Say, for example, a character meets their maternal grandfather for the first time and is horrified to learn he is bald. To avoid the same fate, the character applies all sorts of preventative ointments to their hair– but his scalp has an adverse reaction to the ointments and his hair falls out sooner than it would have had he let it alone. The character had a goal— to not lose his hair— and his actions led him to the opposite result— he loses all his hair.

Perhaps the most famous example of situational irony can be found in the story of Oedipus (which also contains a lot of dramatic irony). In the story, Oedipus’s father, Laius, learns through a prophecy that if he has a son, his son will kill him and marry his wife. To avoid this fate, Laius expels his infant son from his kingdom.

What is Irony Oedipus Rex Irony StudioBinder

Oedipus in action  •  Define irony

This action, however, results in Oedipus unwittingly seeing through the prophecy, since he does not know Laius is his father. Thus, Laius experiences some tragic situational irony: he sets out to contradict a prophecy, and instead ensures it happens.

With all three of our types of irony defined, let’s look at how irony differs from other rhetorical devices it is typically confused with.

Irony as literary device

Differentiating Irony

As we’ve said, irony is one of the most misused literary devices there is. Here are some techniques it is often mistaken for, and what makes them different.


A paradox is a statement that is self-contradictory. A famous example of a paradox is the sentence, “This statement is a lie.” If the statement is in fact a lie, then it isn’t actually a lie. If the statement is true, then it also isn’t a lie.

A paradox is typically confused with verbal irony. But take the verbally ironic phrase, “Sleeping through my alarm, spilling my coffee, losing my phone– the day’s off to a great start.” This is verbally ironic because the speaker probably doesn’t think their day has started well, but it’s not a paradox because it isn’t self-contradictory.


Satire is when art ridicules the follies or flaws of people or institutions. Satire can make heavy use of irony, and often does, but not all irony is satire. Take the verbal irony examples from above– this isn’t really taking aim at any type of person or organization.


An oxymoron is a subtype of a paradox, using two words which are seemingly contradictory, like calling someone “so smart they’re stupid.” This isn’t irony because, as in this example, the speaker may really mean what they say. Perhaps someone is so smart they overthink every decision, resulting in them always making the wrong one. 


A coincidence may not be a literary device, per say, but people use the word “ironic” to describe coincidences constantly. Let’s say at a party two people are talking about how much they dislike Dallas, and a third person walks up and tells them she’s moving to Dallas. One person in the duo responds, “That’s so ironic, we were just talking about how much we disliked that city.”

This person is misusing the term– this is simply a coincidence. They were talking about one thing, and a person randomly mentioned that one thing. They may have contradicted them, but not in an ironic way.

Irony is a tool which is as powerful as it is misunderstood. Mastering the device in all of its forms will make you a better writer with more layered stories. 

Up Next

Explore more literary devices

Irony is just one of many literary devices and types of figurative language, including satire, oxymorons, and paradox. If you're a writer and want to develop your craft fully, do yourself a favor and continue this exploration. The next article on literary devices is a gateway to many of these tools that help add substance and style to any type of written work.

Up Next: Literary Devices Index →
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