The Six Types of Irony in Film & Television

By: Domonique Salberg

Irony. “The figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning.” It also happens to be one of the most powerful screenwriting tools available; but, habitually referred to is rarely explored. Therefore, this discussion will break down the types of irony found in film and television and explain the contexts in which it appears.

Dramatic Irony

Out of any other genre, drama has the greatest potential to create powerfully compelling scenes and unforgettable moments. Add irony to it, and it can take a story to the next level. So, how dramatic irony primarily unfolds in stories contrasts ignorance and knowledge by providing the audience with information that a character lacks.

When a character speaks or performs in ignorance of the real state of the events, the dramatic irony functions to create two separate meanings for each line of dialogue. 1. The meaning of the line as it is understood by the unaware character (a literal or face-value meaning). 2. The meaning of the line to the enlightened audience (an ironic meaning, opposite to the literal meanings). By knowing something the character does not know, we gain pleasure from being in on the joke.

Clarke Kent and Lois in Superman (1978)

Two famous examples of dramatic irony are seen in Superman and Star Wars. We know Clarke Kent and Superman are the same people, but Lois Lane does not, therefore whenever he disappears when trouble starts and Lois accuses Clark of cowardice, it makes us snicker because of our inside knowledge. Then in Star Wars, we see dramatic irony unfold notably by way of Luke not knowing Darth Vader is his father until Episode V, but the viewer knows much sooner. Ultimately, because of dramatic irony’s effectiveness in enriching a story’s emotional and intellectual impact, it continues to be a widely used technique since Homer’s Odyssey.

Irony of Character

Possibly the most ironic character ever created, Oedipus—a mythical Greek king of Thebes—was a tragic hero whose opposites that are built into his character comprise almost an endless list. Such as how he is both the detective and the murderer he is seeking; he sees, yet he is blind. Thus, the irony of character occurs when characters express strong opposites or flaws or when their actions involve severe setbacks in expected behavior patterns.

Situational Irony

Finding Nemo (2003) "Fish are friends, not food."

Irony of situation is essentially an irony of plot and can be applied in all genres. It typically involves a sudden reversal or backfiring of events so that the result of a character’s actions is exactly the opposite of his or her intentions.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Now take the show Arrested Development; it is an excellent example of situational irony but specifically a structural type when the narrator comments on what happens in the show. Alternatively, take possibly the most famous example of situational irony from The Sixth Sense. Cole can “see dead people,” where we finally figure out that Bruce Willis’s character is dead at the end of the movie.

Irony of Setting

Irony of setting happens when an event transpires in a setting that is exactly the opposite of the setting we usually expect for such an event. The show Banshee is filled with thrilling irony of setting—most notably seen in its Amish gangsters.

Irony of Tone

In essence, irony of tone involves the juxtaposition of opposites in attitudes or feelings. Although sarcasm is one of the more overt methods to create an iconic tone, irony often depends on more subtle, understated language to make its point. American Psycho starring Christian Bale and his character’s ego, is an effective study in irony of tone, like the famous scene where he murders a colleague with sinister glee.

Cosmic Irony

Finally, Cosmic irony, sometimes described as “irony of fate,” happens when a higher power (God, fate, the Universe) interferes with creating an ironic situation or typically, to control and play with human hopes and desires. Furthermore, cosmic irony is often used in stories about the human condition in situations highlighting that despite our efforts, destiny and fate remind us it may be the only determining factor of the outcomes of someone’s life and the world.

But all seriousness aside, there are times when it is used for comedic relief, although the kind that bites deep. It can bring a laugh but not the usual kind—one that catches between the heart and mind. We laugh, maybe because it hurts too much to cry. Thus, an example of cosmic irony is when Aladdin is transformed into a rich man by Genie, only for Jasmine to reject him. Conclusively when utilized adequately, irony of all types can shock, inspire, and amuse.

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