While verbal irony is limited to language, situational irony is a much broader term with endless applications. At a fundamental level, every story has some aspect of situational irony, making it a key component of storytelling. But what is situational irony exactly? Let’s continue our series on irony with a definition and examples that will answer that question. When you understand how it works, you’ll be able to add intrigue and complexity to your storytelling.
A Brief Overview
Introducing situational irony
Situational irony is a very straight-forward concept but the tricky part is weaving it effectively into your stories. Below, we'll see this concept in action with some examples from Film & TV but let's begin with a quick situational irony definition.
Define Situational Irony
What is situational irony?
Situational irony is when the opposite of what we expect to happen, happens. It can be as simple as bringing an umbrella outside only to find the sun shining. Or it can be as dramatic as revealing the killer to be the least likely suspect. It is the ultimate curveball to throw your audience — and, when done well, it can be supremely satisfying. Who doesn't love a shocking twist?
Subtypes of situational irony
- Cosmic irony (Irony of Fate)
- Poetic irony (Poetic justice)
- Structural irony
- Historical irony
In movies and television, we need situational irony to keep things unexpected and interesting. It would be extremely boring if everything always turned out how we expected it to. That’s not how real life works and it’s not how fictional entertainment works either.
One of the biggest questions involves the difference between dramatic and situational irony. In the next section, we’ll set the record straight.
AN IMPORTANT DISTINCTION
Situational vs. dramatic irony
Dramatic and situational irony both involve the difference between expectations and reality. The element that makes them different is time.
With situational irony, we learn at the same time as the characters that our expectations were different than reality. With dramatic irony, we know in advance that the character's expectations are not the reality of the situation. And that creates tension.
We'll cover dramatic irony in more detail in a different post.
Let's move onto some situational irony examples that will help understand this concept even further. As you'll see, there are many ways to employ this form of irony — for humor, suspense, or drama.
Situational Irony Examples
Use situational irony for suspense
Let's jump into a quick example of situational irony from the 2016 film Don't Breathe. A group of two-bit criminals decides to rob a blind man suspected of sitting on a small fortune in cash. The irony comes when they discover, much too late, that his blindness has made him much more dangerous than they expected.
How To Use SITUATIONAL IRONY
Add situational irony for humor
If you’ve seen the game show The Price is Right, you know that its long-time host, Bob Barker, had one of the sweetest and kindness personas.
So, when he pops up in Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore, we expect that same character. Instead, we get Barker throwing punches and profanities — completely hilarious and completely unexpected.
Tragic SITUATIONAL IRONY
Apply situational irony for drama
In The Dark Knight, the Joker has kidnapped both Harvey and Rachel, Bruce Wayne’s on-and-off-again girlfriend. When The Joker gives Batman their locations, our hope is that he’s telling the truth.
And he is, just not exactly how we expect...he switched their addresses so Batman ends up saving Harvey instead of Rachel. A cruel use of situational irony, indeed.
In the next section, we’ll define the various permutations of situational irony so you can see how intricate and nuanced this concept is.
IRONY WITH A TWIST
Cosmic irony is just one subtype of situational irony, this time with a bit of a supernatural twist. We still have a situation in which reality and expectation are different but there is an additional element — a "higher power" was involved.
This higher power could be God, the Universe, fate, or even aliens. Cosmic irony is also known as "irony of fate," which might help give you an idea of how it all works.
On the classic sitcom Gilligan’s Island, every episode had the stranded survivors attempt to get off the island. In this episode, a communication cable washes ashore and, thanks to the Professor’s ingenuity, they are able to tap into the line and call home. But, then, cosmic forces come into play and a storm washes the cable back out to sea. Aw, shucks!
There is a lot more to explore with cosmic irony, including examples from movies and TV.
IRONY AS JUSTICE
Poetic irony (a.k.a poetic justice) is another subtype of situational irony, and just might be the most satisfying for the audience. Poetic irony occurs when a crime or transgression is unexpectedly resolved positively, often due to a ‘twist of fate.’
In The Killing, the heist of a horse racetrack is perfectly planned and executed. In the end, karma visits Johnny Clay when he is mere minutes away from escape. While waiting for the plane, a dog runs onto the tarmac and the driver of the luggage cart swerves. Johnny’s suitcase falls and $2 million in cash gets sent flying in every direction.
There is a lot more to explore with poetic irony, including examples from movies and TV.
FUNNY OR DECEPTIVE IRONY
Structural irony is a subtype of situational irony, and can have two very different effects whether it's used in comedy or drama. It occurs when the perspective of an unreliable narrator or naive protagonist is different from the reality of the situation.
In some cases, the unreliable narrator may simply be lying to the audience or they may have convinced themselves of a faulty truth. Either way, when the entire story is built around this ignorance or deception, you get structural irony.
There is a lot more to explore with structural irony, including examples from movies and TV.
IRONY OF THE PAST
Historical irony is our final subtype of situational irony. As the name suggests, it has more to do with actual history than fiction but can still be used for deep and profound reasons in your storytelling.
Historical irony occurs when hindsight provides an ironic perspective on an action or stance made in the past. Hindsight is 20/20, right?
At the end of The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg finds himself alone, reaching out to someone he once had a connection with — perhaps the only person he ever had a chance connecting to. The metaphor and use of historical irony in this scene is exquisitely executed.
There is a lot more to explore with historical irony, including examples from movies and TV.
Dive deeper into irony
We've covered the basics of situational 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.