Irony and Deception as Literary Devices Part 1
Writers are always looking for ways to layer their stories, to give their writing depth and meaning and provide more than what can be gleaned on the surface. There are plenty of plot devices that help writers to do this; however, two lesser known ones are irony and deception.
Irony in fiction occurs when the writer intentionally uses a different meaning to the literal one in order to create a dramatic, comedic or emphatic effect. Such meaning or intention will be clear to the reader, but some or all the characters(s) will not be aware. It’s about creating different layered perspectives.
There are three types of irony commonly used in fiction - dramatic, situational and verbal.
Writers use dramatic irony for different purposes and effects. It relies on the fact that the reader knows something that the other characters do not. This affects the way the reader reacts to the narrative. Sometimes none of the characters are aware, or it may be just one or two that don’t know what’s about to happen. The writer may want to increase mood and tension to make the reader feel the gravity of an intense, unfolding situation, so the reader will be aware of a dangerous situation about to happen to the main character, because the writer has implied this in the preceding narrative, description or dialogue, but other characters within that scene will not be aware, and the main character certainly won’t.
This affects how the reader perceives the events – he or she will feel the suspense, fear and drama as that character edges closer to impending danger. And that’s the key to effective dramatic irony. It’s the reaction and emotions that it provokes within the reader that makes dramatic irony work, for example, Shakespeare achieves this with Romeo and Juliet. Romeo commits suicide in the belief that Juliet is dead, but we know she isn’t. There is a huge misunderstanding and one character because one character believes something to be true, but it actually isn’t.
Situational irony happens when the writer presents a difference between what is expected to happen in a situation and what actually happens. Expectation versus reality creates an opposite effect, which means the outcome of a situation is completely different to what the reader expects for example, in Coleridge's poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the characters are surrounded by the ocean, while dying of thirst, yet they cannot drink the salty seawater because it will make them sick.
Another example might be that a woman does her best to avoid her new cashmere coat from getting wet or dirty – she dodges other people and dogs and avoids contact with other objects. She even avoids the rain with an umbrella. Then, moments from her doorstep, a car rushes by through a large puddle and showers her with dirty water.
Such contradictions can heighten mood, tone or drama in certain scenes and it helps to enrich and emphasise the story.
In much the same way situational irony creates opposites, verbal irony is when a character says something that is opposite to what the character means, or it’s opposite the truth. Implied truth is contrasted with actual truth, so, for instance, a character who is hiding her feelings about a situation might say in a weary tone, ‘Well, isn’t this a lovely gathering?’
The true meaning of this sentence will be clear to the reader, especially because of the tone, but will not be clear to the other characters who believe she is making a nice comment about a family get together.
Irony is all about creating different perspectives, be them dramatic, verbal or situational.
In part 2 we’ll look deception and how writers manipulate the readers with lies, falsehoods and red herrings.
Next week: Irony and Deception as Literary Devices Part 2