Verbal Irony: How to Master the Art of Saying One Thing and Meaning Another

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Photo Source: “The Trial of the Chicago 7” Credit: Nico Tavernise/Netflix

From Aaron Sorkin to Tina Fey, Oscar Wilde to Elaine May, great writers layer meaning within a story using verbal irony—a rhetorical device that reveals the heart of a scene with a clever twist of words. Let’s dive into the world of verbal irony, where what is said is rarely what is meant.

What is verbal irony?

Verbal irony is a form of irony where someone states the opposite of what they truly mean. If you’re learning how to write a script, verbal irony is a great tool to create comedy and drama by engaging an audience or reader to look more deeply into what a character truly means. Verbal irony can be delivered in a few ways depending on tone:

Sarcasm is perhaps the most well-known form, and it is delivered with a meanspirited or mocking tone.

  • Example: If a driver hits a curb while parking a car, the person in the passenger seat may say, “You’re a great driver.”

Overstatement uses hyperbole to exaggerate a detail or situation to an absurd degree. This communicates how a person or character feels about a situation even if their words are outside of the realm of possibility.

  • Example: If a person is hungry, they might say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” 

Understatement is when someone says something that deliberately minimizes the severity of a situation. This can be used to make a joke or emphasize the absurdity of a situation. 

  • Example: If it is pouring rain in the middle of a thunderstorm, someone might say, “Only a little drizzle.”

The difference between verbal, situational, and dramatic irony

Although verbal irony is one of the most common types used in casual conversation and storytelling, it can be easy to mix it up with other types of irony. Understanding how it differs can be helpful for writers wanting to use it for comedic or dramatic effect.

Situational irony revolves around a specific circumstance. It isn’t necessarily stated outright, but rather emerges from the juxtaposition of what is expected and what happens.

The premise of the television series “Dexter” is rooted in situational irony. The show follows Dexter Morgan, a forensic blood spatter analyst for the Miami-Metro Police Department who lives a double life as a vigilante serial killer. The irony lies in the notion that a forensic analyst for the police would be the last person you’d expect to be a criminal serial killer. 

Dramatic irony depends on the audience knowing a piece of information or context that the characters in a story do not know. 

For example, the beginning of the film “Titanic” emphasizes that the ship was touted as unsinkable. Everyone in the audience knows the Titanic sank, so the characters’ ignorance of the impending catastrophe is a classic case of dramatic irony.

These examples show the value of using all types of irony in storytelling. Learning how to be a great screenwriter means mastering the craft of integrating these devices into a story seamlessly.

How to use verbal irony effectively

1. Figure out why you’re using it. Learning how to be a great playwright, screenwriter, or storyteller entails mastering language beyond its surface value, so take the time to determine why you want to include verbal irony. Do you want to drive home thematic elements? Are you delivering the punchline of a joke? Or are you highlighting a character’s wit? Answering these questions will help flesh out the best way to incorporate it.

2. Know your audience. Verbal irony is a great tool for engaging an audience; it invites them to participate in a story and look more deeply into characters. For this device to work, the audience must be able to read between the lines beyond a character’s actual words. If your film or play is inherently cheeky and draws a witty audience, you can be a bit more subtle when incorporating verbal irony. However, if the story leans more on heavy-handed techniques such as slapstick comedy, you may need to be a bit more on the nose.

3. Create clear characters. For audiences to know what a character means versus what they say, they need to know the character’s… well, character. If the character has a superiority complex, then the audience should see right through any blandishments and recognize the disconnect between their complimentary language and true feelings. But if the character traits are unclear, the audience may miss the irony altogether.

4. Consider comedic timing. Verbal irony often works like the punchline of a joke: Timing is crucial. For instance, if a character claims to hate chocolate but later insists they love their mother-in-law’s chocolate cake at a dinner party, the effectiveness hinges on the timing of these moments. If there’s too much time between the character expressing their true feelings and their ironic statement, the audience might forget the truth and miss the irony.

5. Use it sparingly. This is a great tool—but like any tool, it can be overused to the point where its impact is lost. If you include too much in your writing, the audience might become confused about what’s real and what’s not. And to co-opt Syndrome’s villain monologue from “The Incredibles,” when everything’s verbal irony… nothing will be. Find the best moments to use verbal irony, but don’t force it into every dialogue or situation.

Verbal irony examples

Some of the most intense, jaw-dropping, and hilarious moments of film and TV are the direct product of verbal irony. Here are just a few.

Andy’s breakdown on “The Office” (Season 3, Episode 14, “The Return”)

In this scene from “The Office,” the easily irritated Andy reaches his limit. His officemate Jim has hidden Andy’s phone in the ceiling and keeps calling it, causing it to cheerfully ring. The prank climaxes when Andy yells that he’s sorry that someone finds his pain funny. Far from being sorry, he’s infuriated, finding nothing amusing about the prank.

Sponsors in “Wayne’s World”

In this scene, TV show host Wayne states several times that he “will not bow to any sponsor,” while overtly directing several brand logos towards the camera. This cleverly breaks the fourth wall in a manner that’s so outrageously over the top it’s cemented itself as one of the film’s most memorable bits.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat” in “Jaws”

One of the most famous lines from this iconic thriller showcases verbal irony at its finest. The understatement about needing a bigger boat powerfully underscores police chief Brody’s horror after catching a glimpse at the beastly shark terrorizing the community.

“Long live the king” in “The Lion King”

Verbal irony is an incredible way to reveal the true nature of a character in just a few words. In this dramatic—and, for many a child, highly traumatic—scene, the regicidal Scar’s evil nature is revealed through verbal irony in the last words he tells his brother, King Mufasa, before letting him fall to his death.

Abbie Hoffman takes the stand in “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Sorkin is known for his quick-witted dialogue with layers of subtext, humor, and drama—and he often uses verbal irony to create all three. This scene from “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is studded with great lines of verbal irony, such as “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before,” that drive home the absurdity of the prosecution.