Welcome home, writers! Get 10% off your first purchase.
Sign up
No items found.
Sharp dramatic point. Experimentation in writing
novel writing techniques

What is Dramatic Irony?

Lily Lindon. Former editor at Penguin Random House Vintage Books and The Novelry Team Member.
Lily Lindon
September 3, 2023
September 3, 2023

What is dramatic irony? And how does it work to create tension in your writing?

We hear literary terms like ‘dramatic irony’ being thrown around all the time, but what does it really mean? And how can we use it in practice?

As part of our blog series this month answering your questions on literary techniques, we’ve asked Lily Lindon, editor at The Novelry and author of Doubled Booked and My Own Worst Enemy, to talk us through this famous literary device.

Strap in for plenty of examples, a few learnings from Mr William Shakespeare, and some ideas for how we can all bring more dramatic irony (and therefore tension!) into our writing.

An author’s guide to understanding dramatic irony

Psst. Come over here. I’ll let you in on something that other people don’t know...

Feels good, doesn’t it?

Well, if you like the feeling of having more information than someone else, you’re going to love dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony refers to the storytelling technique of when the reader knows something a character doesn’t.

In this blog, I’ll be looking at how you can use dramatic irony in your writing to create interesting effects, including tragedy and comedy, horror, suspense, and romantic tension.

Need some dramatic irony examples? We've got you covered. Understand dramatic irony and how it creates tension in a story with our tips.

What is dramatic irony? And how does it differ from other ‘ironies’?

There are many different kinds of irony. It’s a versatile, delicious literary device to consider using in your writing generally. Irony creates that brain-tickly feeling of a puzzle, a paradox, a joke, where it feels like contrasting information is happening in your mind simultaneously.

What makes this kind of irony ‘dramatic’?

Dramatic irony can go by other names – you may have heard it called tragic irony, situational irony, cosmic irony, or structural irony. These all point to the sense that this is an irony on almost a cosmic level of the plot. You, as the audience or reader, are privy to something that only gods and storytellers know.

Dramatic irony is different to your common, everyday irony (which, for the sake of clarity here, we can call ‘verbal irony’). That’s the coexistence of seemingly contrasting or opposite statements, such as those that occur in puns, wordplay, and sarcasm.

If someone says, ‘Please, help yourself,’ after you’ve already eaten their snacks without asking, that’s verbal irony.

If you, the reader, know that the snacks were poisoned earlier, that’s dramatic irony.

How does dramatic irony differ to foreshadowing?

Dramatic irony is interesting to compare with other similar tools in the storytelling arsenal, and it is indeed a kind of foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is a hint of something significant to come later, but characters and readers may or may not notice it as it’s drip-fed by the writer.

It’s important in dramatic irony, however, for two things to happen: that readers are definitely aware of the information, and also that they know the characters are ignorant of it.

It’s important in dramatic irony for two things to happen: that readers are definitely aware of the information, and also that they know the characters are ignorant of it.

But at the end of the day, the important thing maybe isn’t so much debating the terminology, but how you can recognise it in writing and wield it effectively in your own. So let’s think about that...

So how does dramatic irony work?

Dramatic irony is utilised in many different mediums of storytelling, including theatre, films, and novels.

It’s called dramatic irony from the ‘theatrical’ meaning of the word, and we might be more familiar with dramatic irony from the old forms of theatre in Greek tragedy (if your school days were anything like mine, anyway!), which is why it’s sometimes called ‘Socratic irony’.

Famous examples of dramatic irony

Some of the oldest, most influential pieces of theatre, from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House to Oedipus Rex, use dramatic irony to build a sense of anticipation – like when we’re waiting for Oedipus to unwittingly marry his mother and kill his father.

Another example of dramatic irony comes at the end of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, when – spoiler alert (although I’d like to know how you’ve managed to go through life not discovering how Romeo and Juliet ends) – Romeo drinks poison, killing himself in front of the audience in the mistaken belief that his love Juliet is dead.

Only the audience knows of Romeo’s error, and it creates a feeling of horrible inevitability on stage, making the crowd wish that we could call the information from our seats in the audience and avoid the tragic ending. But we can’t (or we’d spoil a poignant work of art. And get thrown out the theatre).

Once you start looking for dramatic irony you’ll start to see it everywhere, from the work of Alfred Hitchcock to Buffalo Bill.

using dramatic irony in fiction writing course
Develop your craft as you go to last draft on the writer-to-author career path at The Novelry

Examples of dramatic irony in film genres

In horror films

If the unsuspecting victim of a horror movie is about to go into the room where we know the killer is lying in wait, that’s dramatic irony.

In romcoms

When we see a love interest trying to hide the feelings we’ve already seen them confess to a friend, that’s dramatic irony.

In family films

If a child character thinks things are so easy for adults, and are desperate to grow up and have fun responsibilities like doing their taxes... That’s a form of dramatic irony too.

But we’re a creative writing course here at The Novelry! So we need to explore how and why you should use these techniques in your novel.

Creating dramatic irony is easy with these tips on how to increase the audience's knowledge without your leading characters knowing about it.

The dramatic effects of dramatic irony in literature

As we’ve seen from the examples above, dramatic irony can have a wide range of effects. If the reader has information the characters don’t, this can create comedy or tragedy, tension or release.

If the reader has information the characters don’t, this can create comedy or tragedy, tension or release.

There’s a great deal of subtlety and range in why these effects can emerge from dramatic irony.

Because dramatic irony is like the storytelling gods letting you in on a secret about the characters, it can make the reader feel above, wiser, more knowledgable, or even disparaging of the actions of the character.

It can be a way to make your readers feel more judgemental of your character, as we know something they don’t, so we feel they should know better.

On the other hand, in other contexts, it can also make readers more sympathetic to the characters – if we have a sense of knowing what’s going to happen, we might have more pity, dread or worry for them. It can create a feeling of the world being against them – and we, as the reader, are guiltily complicit.

Examples of dramatic irony in different genres

You can utilise dramatic irony in any genre. The way that you might want to use dramatic irony will differ between genres though, for the effect you want to create in your readers.

The way that you might want to use dramatic irony will differ between genres

Always consider your intentions, and what you want your reader to experience.

Dramatic irony in UpLit and Romance

If you’re writing an uplifting romance or love arc within your novel, dramatic irony might be a way to increase romantic tension. For example, you could show a character who is about to be caught kissing someone they aren’t meant to.

Or, conversely, you can use dramatic irony to let your readers know that the lover is interested – and therefore we can enjoy the muddle of your characters messing up how to be honest with their feelings, content in knowing the happy ending is on its way if the characters can stop being such silly billys.

For example, in one of The Novelry’s Hero Books, Less by Andrew Sean Greer, the narrator speaks to the reader about the eponymous hero, often giving us information that Less within the novel is not aware of until later – that’s dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony in Children’s Literature

Writing for different age readers can also create opportunities for dramatic irony. For example, if you’re writing a book with child characters, an adult reader might understand references, euphemisms, or just plain old boring adult stuff in a way your child characters (and potentially child readers) don’t.

Readers of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy, for example, experience dramatic irony when the characters talk of parallel worlds similar to theirs, because we are reading in one of those very worlds (another example here is that readers may also experience layers of meaning from knowledge of our world’s Christianity, which the characters in his alternate world don’t have).

Dramatic irony in Historical Fiction

If you’re writing historical fiction, or a novel set in a particular time period, you can also have an interesting form of historical irony from the reader having an awareness of what will happen to the world in the future.

If a female character in the early modern period was to talk about whether women might ever have equal rights to men, for example, this would be a kind of dramatic irony.

Or characters in 1913 wondering if there would ever be such a thing as a world war. This creates a dramatic irony on a grander, almost cosmic level.

Dramatic irony in Literary Fiction

In a literary or experimental novel, you might even use dramatic irony to wink in a meta-fictional way to the reader, winking that the characters aren’t aware they’re fictional.

Although this is something of a cliché, so I’m not necessarily recommending it, if a character says ‘You couldn’t write this!’ – that’s dramatic irony. (And if a character were to start speaking about dramatic irony, that would also be an instance of dramatic irony!)

In any genre, having shifts in setting, time, point of view, or which group of characters we’re following can create opportunities for dramatic irony, as the reader is made privy to information another character doesn’t know.

How might you use dramatic irony in your genre? Have you perhaps been using dramatic irony without realising it?

Creating dramatic irony is easy with these examples.

Ideas for experimenting with dramatic irony

Now it’s your turn!

Here are some things to consider when wielding dramatic irony in your writing.

Who knows what?

Dramatic irony depends on the reader knowing something the character doesn’t – but what about your other characters?

Play with what happens if you grant information to some characters and not others, and clue the reader in on who is none the wiser.

The big reveal

Dramatic irony is created when the reader knows something the character doesn’t, but this doesn’t have to be sustained indefinitely – in fact, it often has its biggest impact in the moment that the characters become aware of what they were missing.

So how can you build maximum tension to this moment of revelation?

And how might the character most dramatically (pun intended) discover this: by accident, or through investigation? From a stranger, or from someone close to them? Was it under their nose all along, or is it something they couldn’t possibly have discovered until now? Did they suspect anything, or were they completely ignorant? How wrong were they?

Narrative voice

Omniscient narrators have a great opportunity to play with dramatic irony, because the storyteller has knowledge that the characters don’t, and is telling this directly to the reader.

Free indirect discourse is also a great way to enjoy dramatic irony where the reader is made privy to different characters’ thoughts, which other characters then don’t know.

You can also use dramatic irony in first or second person narration – for example, if a reader is made to notice that the first-person narrative character has a strongly biased worldview (which is a great idea for writing interesting characters with strong flaws) then this can create dramatic irony for the reader, as we’re in on something that the character isn’t. We’re seeing them make choices they believe are the right ones – when we know better than them that they are wrong!

Drama!

Have fun playing with the full range of effects available with dramatic irony. Try to use it for increased tension. Try to use it for humour. Try to use it for bittersweetness, poignancy, catharsis, horror. And then try to make it even more dramatic!

Find inspiration

Look to your favourite novels, films, and other stories. What dramatic irony has impacted you, and why?

Were there any times you felt it was particularly effective? Or times where the reader knowing something the character doesn’t actually diminished your enjoyment of the piece?

Note it all down.

Steal from the best!

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry – the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
Lily Lindon. Former editor at Penguin Random House Vintage Books and The Novelry Team Member.
Lily Lindon

Before joining The Novelry, Lily Lindon was an Editor at Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House, home to authors including Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie.

Members of The Novelry team