Verbal irony is the most common form of irony because it’s tied directly to language that we use every day. So, what is verbal irony exactly and what are the different subtypes? When including verbal irony in your screenplay, it adds depth and complexity to the dialogue and, by extension, to your characters as well. In this article, we’re going to define verbal irony, including the different ways it can be used in your screenwriting.
A Brief Overview
Introducing verbal irony
The first thing we need to do is to define verbal irony. We use it all the time and while the definition is actually quite simple, there are some nuances that we’ll need to discuss.
Verbal Irony Definition
What is verbal irony?
Verbal irony is when you say something different than what you mean. This is done intentionally by the speaker, often with the hope that either the listener or the audience recognizes the presence of irony.
Note: Verbal irony is not lying. A lie is a falsehood meant to deceive. This type of irony is much less nefarious.
What are the subtypes of verbal irony?
- Stable and unstable
- Understatement and overstatement
- Socratic irony
Verbal irony can be a powerful tool in writing dialogue. When a character says exactly what they mean, that can be uninteresting both for the actor delivering the lines and for the audience watching them.
Interesting dialogue has nuance, subtext, and it leaves a little (or a lot) for interpretation. This type of irony can be used for any number of situations, from comedy, to romance, or to reveal a character traits. It can be used to add depth and complexity to what a character is saying.
Here are some examples of what that looks like.
Humorous Verbal Irony
Using verbal irony for comedy
In The Office, Jim is constantly pranking Dwight. He is able to do this so successfully because Dwight can be quite gullible — he believes almost anything you say, especially if it’s something he WANTS to believe...like vampires. Jim uses verbal irony to convince Dwight that he is slowly turning into a vampire...and it is one of the best pranks of the show.
Fairy Tale IRONY
Let verbal irony be romantic
In The Princess Bride, we have an example of how verbal irony can be used romantically. Instead of “I love you,” Westley says, “As you wish.”
Saying “I love you” is certainly direct, but finding an alternative or creative phrase will rise much further on the romance index.
Character Through Dialogue
Verbal irony can reveal character
Chandler Bing might just be the king of verbal irony. His character on Friends uses humor as a defense mechanism, especially when he’s nervous, and that is a dynamic character choice.
Verbal irony for its own sake will only get you so far but when you use it as an access point to something much deeper within a character, that’s when it becomes interesting.
In the next section, we’ll lay out the different types of irony and how they work together to create sharper and layered dialogue.
VERBAL IRONY SYNONYM
Verbal irony vs. sarcasm
When we hear verbal irony, our automatic assumption is that its sarcasm but there is one tiny difference between the two.
Sarcasm is verbal irony with attitude — the intention being to hurt or mock someone. The amount of cruelty can range from light-hearted joking to downright nasty.
Mean Girls is all about deception and duplicity. Regina George, as Queen of the Plastics, is no stranger to these concepts and this is the first time Cady figures that out.
Remember: all sarcasm is verbal irony, but not all verbal irony is sarcasm. There is constant confusion over irony vs. sarcasm but hopefully you understand the difference now.
Read on for a more detailed definition of sarcasm, including more examples from movies and TV.
LEVELS OF IRONY
Understatement vs. overstatement
Two ways you can utilize this type of irony is through understatement or overstatement. You’re still saying something that you don’t quite mean but you can either exaggerate or minimize the presentation.
For example, if it’s 100 degrees outside and someone says, “It’s a little warm” they are making an understatement.
Oz is a very different place from Kansas. We can see this for ourselves the moment Dorothy steps through the door into a world of colorful strangeness. This makes Dorothy’s line, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” a perfect example of understatement.
On the contrary, if they say, “It’s hotter than the sun out here!” they are making an overstatement. Both statements qualify as irony. The first response minimizes the truth and the second exaggerates it.
A classic overstatement example can be found in 101 Dalmatians when Rolley describes just how hungry he is.
Read on for a more detailed definition of understatement and overstatement, including examples from movies and TV.
Socratic irony is when you feign ignorance in order to draw something out of someone (i.e., "playing dumb"). For example, when your parents know the truth but play dumb in order to trap you in a lie.
This is where the whole concept of irony was born, named for a Greek character named Eiron who used wit disguised as ignorance to defeat his opponent.
Read on for a more detailed definition of Socratic irony, including more examples from movies and TV.
Dive deeper into irony
We've covered the basics of verbal 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.