Have you ever wished you could pull a character aside and explain the situation to them? “Don’t worry, Romeo—Juliet is faking it,” you might say. If you’ve had that feeling, then the writer is using dramatic irony, a story structure where the reader has more information than the characters. Dramatic irony can create contrast, tension, and suspense in writing. It can also be used for comedy by letting readers in on a joke.
What is dramatic irony in writing?
The purpose of dramatic irony in creative writing is to engage the reader with the story. The writer does this by privileging the reader with information that the characters do not have. This creates a sense of tension between what the reader knows and how the characters behave.
When the reader is aware of what is going to happen, they are more invested in each step that leads toward it, especially when the character appears to misstep or misunderstand. A writer can use this tension to build suspense, create contrast, or offer humor.
You are probably familiar with the feeling of dramatic irony in horror movies: It’s knowing that the psychopath killer is hiding in the house while you scream at your screen, “Don’t go in there!” In writing, dramatic irony can be more subtle, and it may take many chapters for a situation to reveal its whole truth. The longer the dramatic irony is drawn out, the higher the stakes feel to the reader.
How does dramatic irony work?
There are three stages of dramatic irony: preparation, suspense, and resolution.
In the preparation stage, the audience receives information some of the characters don’t have. In Romeo and Juliet, the reader knows that Juliet’s “poison” is actually an elixir that will make her appear dead. This is quietly demonstrated to the reader, but no other characters—especially Romeo—are aware of this truth.
The suspense is the way the story plays out based on the information we know, and how the characters are acting. It’s often during the suspense phase that the consequence of the audience’s knowledge is revealed, and all we can do is read on to find out what happens next.
In the resolution phase, the full significance of the character’s ignorance is revealed. This moment can be shocking, tragic, or comical.
How does it differ from verbal and situational irony?
Irony is a great literary device to turn your readers’ expectations on their heads. There are many types of irony. The three that you will regularly encounter in writing are verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony.
- Verbal irony relies on the wording of the story. It is different from situational or dramatic irony, which rely on the structure of the story. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcey says that Elizabeth Bennet is “. . . tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me,” when we know the opposite is true. This is verbal irony, where the actions of the character are directly at odds with something they’ve said.
- Situational irony is similar to dramatic irony, in that both rely on the story’s structure to expose a discrepancy. The key difference between situational and dramatic irony is when the truth is revealed to the reader. If the reader is learning the truth alongside the character, that is situational irony. If the reader learns the truth before the character, it’s dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is also similar to foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a plot element that alludes to something yet to come in the story. An author can use foreshadowing to create tension for the reader to set them up for a big reveal or a plot twist. But foreshadowing does not need to be obvious, and it often goes unnoticed by the reader until after the reveal has occurred. In contrast, dramatic irony requires that the reader understand where the story is headed. Foreshadowing might be used to intensify dramatic irony, but they are different mechanisms.
Rules for structuring dramatic irony
- Decide what information the reader needs to know. This knowledge will be carried with the reader throughout the story, so it should reflect a central tension in the story.
- Expose the character’s ignorance. Demonstrate to the reader that they know something the character doesn’t. This can be shown through dialogue, behavior, or by placing them in a situation where they would benefit from the knowledge. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; you can embed the dramatic irony in a sentence or two.
- Decide how long to keep the character in the dark. The longer the situation drags out, the higher the stakes become.
- Stage the resolution. There are many ways the truth can be revealed to the characters in the story—make sure that your scene reflects the effect you’re intending to create. If you want the situation to generate humor, then don’t resolve things by hurting your characters (unless you’re going for dark humor). On the flip side, if your story is meant to be a tragedy, don’t resolve the dramatic irony with a minor misunderstanding.
Dramatic irony in writing examples
Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
One of the most famous and straightforward examples of dramatic irony is in Romeo and Juliet, where the titular characters die by suicide because they don’t know each other’s plans. Meanwhile, the reader is drenched in a sense of dread, knowing all along how the tragic ending could be prevented.
The Odyssey, by Homer
In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Odysseus returns in disguise to his wife, Penelope, in order to test her faithfulness. The reader is privy to the plan, creating a sense of suspense as they wonder how Penelope will behave.
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five is rife with dramatic irony, as its main character jumps back and forth in time, allowing the reader glimpses into the future. At one point, one of the characters describes the movement of American prisoners into Dresden, saying:
“You needn’t worry about bombs, by the way. Dresden is an open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentration of any importance.”
By this point, the reader is well aware that Dresden will, in fact, suffer a massive firebombing attack.
Dramatic Irony FAQs
What is dramatic irony?
Dramatic irony is a writing technique where the writer reveals information to the reader, but not to the characters.
How does dramatic irony work?
Because the reader has privileged information, they feel more invested in the characters’ decisions. With a view of the full picture, a reader might be more distraught by a character’s missteps or more affected by their misunderstandings.
Why do writers use dramatic irony?
Writers use dramatic irony to create tension, suspense, or humor.