How to Use Irony
Irony can be tough to write because first you have to notice something ironic to write about a situation, which is a kind of insight. That’s also why it’s a fairly impressive writing technique. So the trick is not to practice writing irony but to practice noticing it. Look around you every day, and you will see plenty of ways in which ordinary expectations are contradicted by what happens in the real, unpredictable world.
As you look around for irony, take care to avoid the pitfall of confusing irony with coincidence. Often coincidences are ironic, and often they are not. Think of it this way: a coincidence would be if firemen, on the way home from putting out a fire, suddenly got called back out to fight another one. Irony would be if their fire truck caught on fire. The latter violates our expectations about fire trucks, whereas the former is just an unfortunate (but not necessarily unexpected) turn of events.
Another way of putting it is this: coincidence is a relationship between facts (e.g. Fire 1 and Fire 2), whereas irony is a relationship between a fact and an expectation and how they contradict each other.
When to use irony
Irony belongs more in creative writing than in formal essays. It’s a great way of getting a reader engaged in a story, since it sets up expectations and then provokes an emotional response. It also makes a story feel more lifelike, since having our expectations violated is a universal experience. And, of course, humor is always valuable in creative writing.
Verbal irony is also useful in creative writing, especially in crafting characters or showing us their mind and feelings. Take this passage as an example:
Eleanor turned on her flashlight and stepped carefully into the basement. She kept repeating to herself that she was not afraid. She was not afraid. She was not afraid.
Even though the author keeps repeating “she was not afraid,” we all know that Eleanor was afraid. But we also know that she was trying to convince herself otherwise, and this verbal irony gives us additional psychological insight into the character. Rather than just saying “Eleanor was afraid of the basement,” the author is giving us information about how Eleanor deals with fear, and the emotions she is feeling as she enters the basement.
In formal essays, you should almost never use irony, but you might very well point it out. Irony is striking in any context, and a good technique for getting the reader’s attention. For example, a paper about the history of gunpowder could capture readers’ interest by pointing out that this substance, which has caused so much death over the years, was discovered by Chinese alchemists seeking an elixir of immortality.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t express your own thoughts by using verbal irony in a formal essay – a formal essay should always present exactly what you mean without tricks or disguises.