What is Situational Irony? How to Use It in Your Writing

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Photo Source: “Ratatouille” Courtesy of Pixar

When writing a script, the situations you put your characters in are key. These moments are what ultimately provide insight into who they are, while also moving the story forward. There are many ways to do this, but situational irony makes a strong case for itself in creating majorly impactful moments—be they funny, serious, or thrilling. 

In this guide, we will break down what situational irony is, how it compares to its siblings (dramatic and verbal irony), explain the most effective ways of using it, and provide examples from film and television.

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What is situational irony?

Scene from 'The White Lotus'“The White Lotus” Credit: Mario Perez/HBO

Irony is a literary device in which there is a contrast between expectation and reality; situational irony takes what seems to be a straightforward situation and completely subverts it with what actually happens in the scene and/or how the characters react. It can be used for comedic, dramatic, or horrific effect, moving the story in an unexpected direction. These sort of “peaks and valleys,” if you will, help build story momentum and intrigue. It's a way to play with audience and/or character expectations.

It’s “throwing the audience a curveball,” explains Eric Moneypenny, a television writer and comedian whose work can be seen on “The Eric Andre Show” and comedy sketch platform “AOK.” It’s when “the characters do something, but what they want to happen doesn’t, and/or even worse, the opposite happens.” 

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“If I were explaining it to a three-year-old,” explains Jake Fogelnest, an Emmy and WGA Award nominated writer and comedian, “it would be something like, ‘The world’s greatest cybersecurity expert’s computer gets hacked.’ ”

Or, adds Moneypenny, “It’s when a character is a world-renowned hairstylist, but they accidentally give themselves an incredibly bad haircut.” Both of these situations result in something unexpected because of who they’re happening to. Situational irony helps showcase the humanity of your characters in the space between their intent and the results of their actions. 

The difference between situational, dramatic, and verbal irony

Scene from 'Ozark'“Ozark” Credit: Jackson Davis/Netflix

Though all three instances use irony as their backbone, each instance varies slightly in context. 

  • Situational irony happens when a character is put into a set of circumstances and reacts in a way that is unexpected given the information we already knew about said character. Basically, “situational irony brings surprise consequences from actions that audiences discover at the same time as characters,” says Moneypenny.
  • Dramatic irony is when the audience has more information and context in the moment than the character onscreen or onstage. “Stuff which can make us wince, cringe, or want to say things to the screen like, ‘Don’t go in that room, there’s a machete-wielding maniac!’ or ‘Stop making fun of your boss’s toupee, he’s standing right behind you!’ ” says Moneypenny. “The first situation might wind up tragic, the second situation might wind up funny—but they’re both dramatic irony.”
  • Verbal irony, however, is stated rather than experienced. It “is a character saying things that we all know aren’t true—whether through sarcasm, overstating, understating, or feigning ignorance in a circumstance.” Moneypenny goes on to add a real-life scenario as an example: “Politicians wind up engaging in lots of verbal irony publicly, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and that’s why many get roasted on Twitter.”

How to use situational irony effectively

Scene from 'The Larry Sanders Show'“The Larry Sanders Show” Courtesy of HBO

For Fogelnest, “the funniest thing, and the most dramatic thing, is the gap between expectation and result. We think this is going to happen, but instead, this happens. And that’s what makes any piece of entertainment, entertaining. It’s the element of surprise.”

Situational irony exploits and examines that gap through action, leading the character in a new direction—literally or metaphorically speaking. But in the end, situational irony is most effective when the character’s personality dictates the scenario. 

“The best jokes always come from character. It’s nothing that Garry Shandling hasn’t said a million times,” says Fogelnest. “In ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ every character is so highly defined. He has the best job in the world, but he hates it, and it is funny to watch his torture.”

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He continues: “You have to know your characters really, really well before you can even think of situations to put them in. If you really, truly know them and everything about them, there will be certain things that become true or not true, and then you’ve got all sorts of room for comedy.”

To write situational irony that pops, start by asking yourself: 

  1. Who is my main character? 
  2. What are their flaws? 
  3. What do they want to happen in this situation, and what actions are they taking to reach those goals?
  4. In what way can their flaws ensure that the result is the exact opposite from what they wanted?

Examples of situational irony (spoilers ahead!)

Scene from 'Succession' season 3“Succession” Credit: Graeme Hunter/HBO

Perhaps one of the more recently iconic moments of situational irony happened on the third season of “Succession,” a series rife with situational, dramatic, and verbal irony given the rich, out-of-touch media family at its center. Both Moneypenny and Fogelnest noted the moment Roman Roy sends an inappropriate text message—intended for Gerri after she congratulates him on a major company victory—to his father, setting off a series of events that takes away any shine Roman was feeling after his win. 

On the comedic side of things, Fogelnest is quick to point out the genius of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “The whole show revolves around the question, ‘How would Larry react to this situation that [he’s] observed?’ ” If anything, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is situational irony at its best. Fogelnest cites the 2004 episode “The Survivor,” where Larry hosts a dinner for what he believes will be Holocaust survivors, only…one of the two survivors is actually just a former contestant on the show “Survivor.” It’s a situation that is hilariously uncomfortable to witness.

Another series “steeped in situational irony,” Fogelnest says, is the dramedy “Russian Doll.” Nadia, played by series co-creator Natasha Lyonne, “is a character who doesn’t really value her own life. And in the first season, she dies and keeps dying and being reborn.”  

One of the most iconic moments in dramatic cinema is also a moment of situational irony—the twist revealed at the end of “The Sixth Sense.” Bruce Willis’ child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe spends the entire film helping Haley Joel Osment’s character, Cole, deal with the fact that he can see dead people. In the end, Cole bestows upon Malcolm the realization that he is also, in fact, dead. It’s a turn that changes everything you thought you knew about the film and what was happening in it.

In the end, it takes a lot of research and character-building to create fitting scenes of impactful situational irony. But when you take the time to do the work, these scenes beautifully illuminate the human stories you’re telling. Because isn’t the poignancy of life all in the surprisingly unexpected moments?

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