Irony is the juxtaposition of what seems to be the case and what is actually the case. Lawyers know cases ironically and actually. Writers use irony as a rhetorical device and a literary technique. It shows up verbally, dramatically, situationally, and far too often. We use it on purpose, by accident, mistakenly and viciously. It slides in snakelike, or bombastic like a buffalo in a massage parlor. Some of us love it unless it’s about us. Others hate it because they discover it in their work only in the third draft.

Irony can be cruel. “In a cruel irony, the noise of the rescue effort drowned her out. Or, it is a cruel fashion irony, but a shapeless dress looks good only on a shapely body.”[1]

Verbal irony is when someone says something but means another. “I’d rather pull out my own teeth or ‘clear as mud’ are examples of verbal irony. The irony is only recognizable by our stereotypical knowledge of the objects in the sentence, or the context being referred to. It is understood that mud is not clear and pulling teeth is painful, which take these sentences from being literal into the realm of irony.”[2]

Dramatic irony is weird.  It’s primarily used in narratives where one person observing the situation is privy to information that other characters don’t have. “In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, we have Romeo thinking Juliet is dead and killing himself when the audience knows she has just taken a swig of sleeping potion. This is dramatic irony. Similarly, in Oedipus the King the reader knows that Oedipus is the murderer he’s looking for; however, his conscious self, Creon, and Jocasta do not. Or if you’re after a more modern example, The Truman Show showcases dramatic irony, because everyone apart from Truman knows he’s the main character of a reality show.”[3]

Situational irony is ending scenes with the opposite effect from what was intended or expected. Throughout the Harry Potter books, Professor Snape expresses his dislike of the main character because of popularity and fame. This is situational irony because Snape’s actions before the start of the books jump-started the boy’s fame.[4] A classic example of situational irony is, “This fire-extinguisher shoots out fire balls. How ironic!”[5]  

Digging deeper, with smaller shovels, some writers experience odder ironies. “Cosmic irony is when irony goes to a whole other, godly level. Why? Because you only get it in stories that contain gods who want different things than humans do. These gods might play with humans’ lives for kicks, creating oodles of ironic situations. The irony is the contrast between what the humans expect, and what actually happens. This type of irony mostly occurs in Greek legends. Historical irony is all about real events that – when you look at them in the rearview mirror – turned out a lot different than people predicted. Like the Chinese alchemists who discovered gunpowder when they were looking for a way to create immortality. Their discovery had an entirely opposite effect. Socratic irony was named after the philosopher Socrates. This old rascal would pretend to not know about a topic during a debate, leading his opponent to reveal all their nonsensical arguments. It’s also an example of dramatic irony because mischievous Socrates was pretending to have less information than he actually did.”[6]

Three examples in successful novels serve as modern examples of how to use irony in fiction. “George Orwell masters situational irony in Animal Farm through the animals’ endless and fruitless battle to obtain freedom. All of the animals work together to escape the tyranny of the humans who own them. In doing so they end up under the even stricter rule of the pigs. Roald Dahl’s short story A Lamb to a Slaughter is full of dramatic irony. A housewife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb when he asks for a divorce. The police come looking for evidence and unknowingly dispose of it when they are fed the murder weapon for dinner. The repeated line ‘May the odds be ever in your favor’ in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is verbally ironic.”[7]

Political irony is a sense of oppositeness or contrast in speech or writing related to politics. “In general, political irony falls into a category related to a secondary definition of irony, where the word is used to describe an outcome that is contradictory to what is expected. Most often, this form of irony seeks to point out contradictions in politics in a wry or amusing way. Modern speakers and writers use the phrase ‘political irony’ in a variety of ways. Many of these involve satirical or witty analysis of current politics. Political irony is usually related to humor; many expressions of politically ironic speech or writing are intended to entertain through pointing out contradictions in the political landscape. Despite the entertainment value, there are many instances where a real criticism of politics is couched in ironic comedy.”[8]

In December 2022, we were treated to a rare example of judicial ironical writing. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a 138-page order heralded as a major win for campus free speech by the groups who challenged the state. “A federal judge exercised his right to free speech and told Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to sit down and STFU. The judge blocked state officials from enforcing a key part of the new ‘Stop WOKE Act’, saying it was ‘positively dystopian. Comparing the law to the book 1984 by George Orwell, the judge wrote that the law gives the state ‘unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of freedom,’ which – like in the book where the state declares ‘freedom is slavery’ – is the opposite of freedom. He continued, ‘The law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints.’ The law restricts conversations about race in schools and businesses, and even allows students and workers to sue if a classroom lesson or workplace training course caused them to ‘feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.’ So, the truth about America’s racist past can only be discussed if it doesn’t make a white person feel guilty? This comes on the heels of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law that restricts even discussing homosexuality.”[9]

Ironic writing can be mortally funny. In Kate Chopin’s book, “The Story of an Hour,” she tells the story of a wife who learned her husband was dead. She felt a sense of freedom, thinking about her new life out from under his thumb. Suddenly, the husband eyes open—he never was dead. She dies of shock.”[10]

The ethical imperative culminating from each example of ironic writing is to tell your story by not telling your true story, just fake it.



[3] Ibid.








Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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