So, you’ve figured out how to write a story that works. You know you need a character, in a setting, with a problem. You know you need a series of try/fail cycles, followed by a climactic scene and the resolution. The structure is simple, but it’s not always easy.
In particular, it can be challenging to sustain and escalate the story’s momentum through those try/fail cycles. And it would be nice to have something that could give your story a delicious ribbon of flavor, instilling brilliance and meaning.
Here’s the good news—there is such a technique. It’s called situational irony, and in this article, we’re going to take a look at what it’s made of and how to construct it in your own work.
The Pattern of Situational Irony
Patterns are integral to so many processes in life. Learning how to set patterns, and when and how to break them, is key to mastering many skills.
When it comes to situational irony, it’s a good idea to establish a three-step pattern of cause-and-effect events. Readers are often thrilled by an ironic twist that kicks in toward the end of a story, but they don’t always consciously perceive the pattern that led up to it.
To master this technique, you must perceive the pattern.
Here are the three pattern elements you need to establish:
- Your character misperceives a situation.
- Your character acts on the basis of that misconception.
- As a result, your character experiences unanticipated consequences.
Examples of Situational Irony
One of the best-known instances of the use of situational irony is O Henry’s marvelous tale “The Gift of the Magi.” Della deeply loves her husband, Jim, and:
- Believes the only way she can acquire a gift worthy of him is to sacrifice her most valued possession.
- She sells her hair to buy him a watch fob for his prized pocket watch.
- As a result, his gift for her—a set of combs for her lustrous hair—is useless. As is her gift for him, since he sold his watch to buy her combs.
The beautiful irony is that the real gift is the genuine love and care they have for one another.
In Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the protagonist:
- Believes he is wise and intelligent with great powers of perception.
- His powers lead him to murder the old man.
- As a result, he is driven further over the edge and confesses his crime to the unsuspecting police.
The irony is that his insanity caused him to both commit the crime and confess to it.
A page from Shakespeare’s book
Shakespeare used situational irony to good effect in many of his plays. Othello:
- Was persuaded by Iago that his wife, Desdemona, was unfaithful and had betrayed him with another man.
- He resolves to murder her and carries out his plan.
- As a result, he loses a faithful wife and trusts a traitorous friend.
Another Shakespeare example is Romeo and Juliet. The lovers hatch a scheme to be together, but in carrying out their plan, a vital piece of information fails to reach Romeo, and so:
- He believes Juliet is dead.
- Overcome with unbearable grief, he poisons himself.
- As a result, when Juliet wakes from her drugged sleep, she finds her lover dead beside her and kills herself.
The irony is that they are together in death.
A note about Romeo and Juliet: This can also be considered dramatic irony, a type of irony in which the reader has key information the characters don’t have. In this article, we’re looking at the three-step pattern to create an ironic twist, and Romeo and Juliet definitely counts.
Don’t forget Disney
Disney films are full of great examples. In The Lion King (which is based on Hamlet, so score another one for William Shakespeare), Simba:
- Believes himself responsible for Mufasa’s death.
- He banishes himself from the kingdom.
- As a result, he leaves the kingdom in control of the one who really killed the king.
In The Little Mermaid, Ariel:
- Believes legs are the only thing standing between her and gaining Eric’s love.
- She gives up her voice to Ursula in exchange for a pair of legs.
- As a result, she’s lost the quality Eric is looking for, the one method by which he expects to identify his true love.
Three Steps to Create Situational Irony
Taken separately, the incidents in these stories are not ironic, but put them together and order them right, and they create a wonderfully compelling irony. The recipe is simple, but not always easy to achieve. Pulling it off, though, will give your story a powerful punch.
Here’s the pattern you need to follow:
- Set up the pattern by having your character believe the opposite of what’s true.
- Then show your character’s misconceived notion leading them to act.
- Then show how that action resulted in unanticipated consequences. Make sure you establish a cause-and-effect relationship.
The results of irony don’t have to be tragic. The unanticipated consequences could be something positive. The key is that the reader didn’t see it coming, but because you established the pattern, it will be believable and feel right.
Also, as is always the case, be certain to make the reader care about your character before you get the ball rolling on the pattern. If the reader isn’t emotionally invested in your character, this technique will lose much of its potency.
And there you have it. Go out and create some irony!
How about you? Can you think of some examples of situational irony? Do you see a place for it in your own writing? Tell us about it in the comments.
Construct a pattern you can use to create situational irony. Start with a character, in a setting, with a problem. Come up with your own scenario, or use one of the prompts below, to formulate the three steps:
- A character who believes the opposite of what’s true,
- acts on that misconception,
- and as a result, experiences unanticipated consequences.
Tristan, pursued by enemies, must get across the desert.
Cassandra needs to find her lost lover in a strange city.
Bernard must rid the yard of moles or risk losing his job.
Morgan must find a way to land his malfunctioning airplane.