Dramatic irony is a literary device where the audience is aware of information or events taking place in a TV show (or movie or book) while the characters themselves are oblivious.
Dramatic irony is often comedic, and results in characters mocking each other without realizing that they are in fact mocking themselves in the exact same situation.
Consider the following as a simple example of dramatic irony: a man is mocking his friend for stepping into a puddle of mud while he also happens to be in a puddle of mud himself, though he is unaware of this.
Obivously, it’s irrational to make fun of someone for something that you are doing yourself, especially at that same exact moment! So, the butt of the joke becomes the person who started the joke in the first place.
The following are some examples of dramatic irony.
- A popular teenager bullies a girl at school for failing a test, but she herself hasn’t realized that she also failed.
- A fireman is putting out a fire set to a tree while his own uniform has been set alight.
- An old woman feels bad for the elderly people at an old age home while her children are filling out a form for her own admission in the same old-age home.
- A girl in a horror movie runs to hide in the same closet the bad guy is hiding in.
- A lunch lady serves children in the detention room spoiled food, not knowing her own daughter is in detention same day.
- A father is warning his children to be aware of pickpockets while his own wallet is being pulled out of his pocket from a pickpocketer behind his back.
- A man leans against a dangerous edge and explains how dangerous it is at the edge for children, without realizing he is about to slip at any moment.
- A woman badmouths her boss to a coworker over the phone, not knowing she is on speaker and her boss can hear everything.
- A small child is about to confess his love for a girl in his class not knowing she is about to move across the country with her parents the next day.
- A teenager scratches a car at a dealership to be rebellious, unaware of the fact that his own parents just put down an offer on the same car.
Scenario: The children can’t find a fire station despite the fact it’s visible in the scene behind them.
In the 1994 film The Little Rascals, the children cause a fire in their clubhouse. Two of the boys run to a public phone to call the fire brigade.
One boy picks up the phone then turns to his friend: “Quick! What’s the number for 9-1-1?”
His friend shrugs, so the boys leave the phone and run back to their clubhouse to put the fire out themselves. As the boys run off the screen, the camera pans across the street from the phone booth, displaying a fire station.
This is an example of dramatic irony because we know more than the boys. The fact that they have the knowledge at their fingertips (The number for 9-1-1 is 9-1-1!) and there’s a fire station right there is ironic: they know more than they realize. The solution is right there, but they don’t reach for it, and to the audience, this comes across as hilarious.
Scenario: Buzz Lightyear thinks he’s a superhero. We, the audience, know otherwise, which leads to some hilarious and suspenseful scenarios.
The plot of Toy Story is itself based in dramatic irony: the toys are alive, but none of the humans know this. We, the audience, know this, and the toys themselves are aware too.
The movie starts with Buzz Lightyear, a new toy and member of Andy’s toy collection. Through the course of the movie, Buzz feels as if he is a real space ranger, and not just a toy.
Buzz believes he can fly, shoot lasers, and commit fully to his duties as a space ranger.
The audience, as well as the characters in the movie are well aware of the fact that Buzz is indeed just a toy, (without the special powers that his namesake suggests). Here is a clear case of dramatic irony that takes place in the Toy Story franchise films.
Scenario: Snow White has no idea that the old woman is actually the witch who wants to place a spell of neverending sleep on her, and the apple is poisoned. The audience, on the other hand, are aware all along.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale, and another story heavily based in dramatic irony.
When Snow White finds shelter with the seven dwarves, she allows an old woman into the home even when she was warned by the dwarves not to let anyone inside.
Snow White continues to buy an apple from the strange old woman in exchange for a strand of her hair.
Dramatic irony takes place in this scene since Snow White has no idea that the old woman is actually the witch who wants to place a spell of neverending sleep on her, and the apple is poisoned.
The audience is well aware of this throughout, though Snow White herself is not. This works to showcase the concept of dramatic irony in a film or story, and illustrates the ‘dramatic’ effect it has in keeping the audience engrossed in the plot of the story.
Summary: Belle doesn’t know the Beast is actually a handsome prince while we (as the audience) do. Throughout, the movie plays on her lack of knowledge to create suspense.
The classic Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast uses dramatic irony to add suspense and compel the audience to the story until its very end.
Everyone has seen Beauty and the Beast, (at least I think?) While admittedly a demented plot, Belle is held captive by the “Beast”, who, in actuality, is a prince that’s been placed under a spell until he proves his moral worthiness and love for another person. At which point, and in true Disney fashion: the spell will be broken.
It’s a Disney movie; but it’s also an excellent representation of dramatic irony: Belle believes he is a Beast in every sense of the term.
We know, along with the Beast himself, that he is in fact an attractive prince put under a spell.
Since we know this, and we know that Belle does not know, we are that much more invested in the plot and want to see what ends up happening to the characters; and whether they themselves will come to learn the truth of the situation they are in.
Scenario: Walter is the culprit that his DEA brother-in-law is looking for all along. Walt knows, the audience knows, but his brother-in-law doesn’t.
Perhaps one of the most excessively hyped series to exist in television, the crime drama Breaking Bad storyline is a clearcut example of dramatic irony.
If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad (where have you been for the previous decade?) The show centres around a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White.
Walter is diagnosed with cancer and forms a partnership with a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman. The pair then go onto sell white powders together, unbeknownst to Walter’s wife and kids.
The series is dramatic irony from top to bottom. We know Walter has appalling secrets he’s keeping from his family which would (and should, all things considered) drastically change their relationship and family dynamics, were they to be aware of the real facts of his life.
Another example of dramatic irony occurs with Walter’s own brother-in-law, who happens to be a the DEA agent put in charge of finding the prolific powder producer, Heisenberg”, aka Walter White. Little does he know, the answer is right under his nose, and his own brother in law is person he’s out for.
In a key scene in the show, Walter’s brother-in-law and DEA agent, Hank, comes across a set of “W.W.” initials in Heisenberg’s notebook.
Hank turns to his brother-in-law Walter and, as a joke says the “WW” must stand for “Walter White”. Walter jokes back at him saying “You got me!”
Situational Irony describes situations where the opposite of what is expected ends up happening.
An example of situational irony could be driving your sick cat to see the vet while accidentally running over a squirrel while driving.
Verbal irony is a figure of speech where what the person is literally saying contrasts with what they mean, or what they mean figuratively.
An example of verbal irony could be asking someone how their day is going when they’ve just spilled coffee all over themselves, and they respond saying, “my day couldn’t be going any better!”
For more, see my 12 types of irony article.
Irony is a literary technique that adds drama and suspense to literature and media, and is also something we witness from time to time in our own lives. Dramatic irony increases the momentum of stories, gets audiences invested in the characters and introduces an element of suspense that is difficult to reproduce through other literary techniques.