Dramatic Irony in film and TV is one of the most powerful tools available to writers to create compelling scenes, and unforgettable moments. Here is how it works...
Learning how to use dramatic irony in film and TV is crucial to your development as a filmmaker. There are times when we're writing when we want the audience to be in on something that the character is not. These juxtapositions between character knowledge and audience awareness make up the foundation for irony.
But what is dramatic irony? And how can it help you communicate ideas from your screenplay or film to the audience?
Today we'll go over the different types, talk about irony examples in film and television, and mention Alanis Morissette as few times as possible.
What is Dramatic Irony?
As I mentioned in the opening, dramatic irony takes a set of events or a scene and juxtaposes it against what's occurring on the screen (or page).
Let's look at some examples to help illustrate this.
The most simple example is from literature when Romeo decides to kill himself, thinking Juliet is dead when we all know she's just in a deep sleep. I like to think of it as those times in the movie theater where you're yelling at the screen.
Audiences scream "Don't go in there!" because they know what's behind that door, but the character doesn't.
There are three types irony in drama. We'll cover them and their examples later, but let's look at the dictionary definition first.
Dramatic Irony Definition:
"A literary or film technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the significance of a character's words or actions is clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character."
This definition is from the Dictionary. While it's sort of clear, I think we probably need to look into the different types of irony to understand how we can use it in our writing.
Different Types of Dramatic Irony (with examples)
As we just learned, irony is a literary device where words or actions are intentionally used to indicate a meaning opposite than the literal one we are reading/seeing.
So if you have a white shirt on, and you're headed to work, and spill coffee all over and say "Well, great!" You don't mean this is a great thing. Unless you're a complete psychopath.
The dialogue isn't the only place irony happens, but it's a good place to start. That's verbal irony.
The Verbal Irony Definition
In movies and TV, these are lines given that directly contradict what we see on screen. A lot of times these can be sarcastic comments, but they're not always supposed to be mean or snippy.
Some times these are self-deprecating, or lines that one character believes, but the audience knows there's humor behind. Sort of like the "You either die a hero..." line from The Dark Knight. We know that Harvey is describing Bruce's alter ego. Even though Harvey thinks he's delivering a sick burn.
Verbal irony is encapsulated in the use of words to mean something different than what they appear to mean.
I mean, watch the Alanis Morisette video for lots more examples. Or keep reading.
Situational Irony Definition
Situational irony is the difference between what is expected to happen and what happens on the screen or page. I like to think of it in terms of Pixar's masterpiece, Monster's Inc. The whole movie is built on the premise that monsters, scary and terrifying monsters, are emotional beings just trying to give their world some electricity.
Pixar sort of built their name on situational irony. It's present in almost all of their films, from what if Toys had feelings to what if Feelings had feelings. What they do with these ironic situations is to imbue them with empathy and wonderment to keep audiences connected. We cover a lot of these lessons in our Free Pixar E-book.
Next up? Tragic Irony.
Finally, some heartbreak. I already used Romeo and Juliet earlier. So I'll have to think a little harder. In the meantime, read the definition of tragic irony.
Tragic Irony Definition
This is a type of irony where the audience is aware that a character's words or actions will bring a tragic result, but the character is not aware of that pending doom. One of the most obvious ones has to be Snow White's eating of the poisoned apple. We can see from afar that Snow White is doomed, but no matter how hard we yell at the screen she's going to take a bite. And it'll doom her.
Dramatic Irony Examples in TV
We've gone over a lot of examples, but I wanted to throw out a few that happened in television. Irony is frequently a way to highlight specific events on TV. Like when Elaine takes the subway on Seinfeld and has the realization that the world is different than she assumed.
One show that does it better than any other is Community.
Community is a show that plays off the tropes and storylines we're used to seeing on television and drips in irony. They're amazing at subverting the expected. Take this now an infinitely-memed clip from Troy's timeline.
We assume Troy's character is going to have a simple story, but instead it defines expectations, and when he reenters the room the place is literally on fire.
The Big Bang Theory is a show that builds itself on people interpreting one another for the sake of humor. It frequently puts the literal and figurative against each other for ironic effect.
Case in point, this scene:
There's an abundance of sarcasm on TV. I don't need to pull specific clips of it happening. The worst cases can feel like lazy writing, as Family Guy points out.
What about scenes that are tragic?
I have to think about the episode of LOST that still causes me to tear up. In Through the Looking Glass, the audience is clued in that Desmond has foreseen Charlie's death. And we keep waiting for it. There are several fake-outs, And Charlie promises to stay away from the water. But as the episode comes to a close, and Charlie figures out that the vessel that's coming close means to harm the characters, he makes the sacrifice we've all been waiting to see happen. And Desmond knows when Charlie presses his hand on that glass that it's all over.
I'm not sure that's a specifically tragic irony, but it is a two-part episode that revolves around Desmond knowing what Charlie does not. And it crushes me every time.
Dramatic Irony Examples in Movies
I know we covered a lot of examples in movies earlier, but let's jump into a few more examples to nail it down and talk about how it can make your writing better. Like what if you need to build tension in a scene. In the opening of Scream 2, we have situational irony to a tee.
We know the killer is next to her, so everything she does makes us cringe in anticipation. This doubles as a great tragic irony, because we know beyond a shadow of a doubt this will end with her demise.
Let's use another death to deliver irony — specifically, Mufasa's death in The Lion King.
When Scar finds a mourning Simba, we get great use of irony against the main character. It causes Simba to doubt his place among the pride.
The audience understands that Scar murdered Simba's Dad. But Simba's not clued in on that ironic detail.
And it causes him to run away until that lesson can be learned later.
Finally, let's talk Mulan.
There's an entire song, "I'll Make a Man Out of You" predicated on the notion that these are boys fighting int he army. Of course, it's lost on all the characters that the most stubborn and bravest warrior is also a woman.
This is used not only for laughs but also to push forward a great message of equality. Mulan has a goal, to become a warrior regardless of gender, and to be valued by her family and her country. The irony here is used to hammer home the theme of the movie.
Diagramming all these irony instances has been fun, but if you want a more traditional look at dramatic irony, check out the video to see how other teachers explain it.
Summing Up Dramatic Irony in Film and TV
Hopefully, I've provided enough examples to help you apply the tool to your own stories. Remember, if we're going to love your characters, we need to be fully immersed in the world with them. Dramatic irony is great to help you build suspense, laugh, love, and even to help brainstorm story ideas.
Make sure you wield the sword carefully - some of screenwriting is speaking honestly to the reader. Having them connect with everything on the page and inside the story. The only way it works is if the audience understands the truth you're lampooning. So be careful on how you use it in your stories.
Nevertheless, a master of dramatic irony is a master of storytelling in general.
Keep writing, keep practicing, and we'll be here to give you tips along the way.