This week: The Great IronyEdited by: Jayne
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Hi there! Normally you'll find me over in the Contest/Activities and Mystery newsletters, but I'm your guest Drama editor for the next few issues!
Do you hear that buzzing noise? It’s the sound of 10,000 word purists vibrating with anger. Polarising as the subject is, bear with me. I’m not mocking the disagreement. It’s evolution, and I’m working with it instead of against it.
As language evolves, we drop words from daily use but leave them in the dictionary (“archaic”). We change or invent new words, but call them informal (or “slang”), and they still find their way into the giant word-books. Existing words, in regular use, develop new meanings that are recognised as bona fide definitions.
Literally is one such word, where most people recognise the definition of “in a literal manner”, whether it be “primary meaning, truth, accuracy, or equivalency”. But the dictionary recognises a second definition: “in effect; virtually” - defined as an exaggerated emphasis for something that is not literally true or possible. Merriam-Webster goes further, explaining that the second use of “literally” is not the same as “figuratively”, nor is this second use considered slang. Why not? The second definition has been around in literature since the 18th century, that’s why. Even though it’s had a long life, it still literally bothers people.
While literally generates some sparks and grumbles, broaching irony is essentially standing in a thunderstorm while holding a metal rod. There’s two formal categories nobody really argues about (but a lot of folks also don’t understand).
The first, Socratic irony, or feigned ignorance, is used in debates to draw out the weakness in your opponent’s arguments. South Park, of all places, is adept at using this method in their scripts.
The second, which we may vaguely remember from high school, is dramatic irony, where the audience knows something the character doesn’t. In Macbeth, Duncan is content when he gets to the castle, but the audience knows Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are planning the whole “murder Duncan” thing. A contemporary example is The Truman Show. The audience knows Truman is on camera, but Truman does not. A subset of dramatic irony is tragic irony, where what the character says and does contradicts the reality of the situation, and the audience is fully aware of it happening.
The third meaning, which should come with a warning label, is situational irony. Technically, situational irony should involve a “striking” reversal of what is expected/intended, and the audience isn’t aware of it ahead of time. The kerfuffle begins as people use situational irony to explain things that are more coincidence than “striking reversal”. Again, language changes over time, and that “striking” bit is often muted in modern use. This change didn’t happen overnight - “irony” and “ironic” have been evolving into this imprecise form for over 100 years, and we have debated it the entire time. Since it’s at least a century in the making, we can all stop blaming Alanis Morissette for the destruction of the English language.
Admittedly, it’s still a hot topic, but realistically, it’s not going away. While it continues to be derided as a misused word, it isn’t universally accepted that the use of the muted concept of “striking”, even describing something weirdly coincidental, is incorrect. It’s much like literally, where the muted use of “irony” or “ironic” has a subtle difference from mere “coincidence”.
Adding further to this confusion (or “wrongness”, depending which side of the argument you fall on), is that the change in situational irony isn’t the same as verbal irony. While your characters may engage in dialogue referring to situational irony, verbal irony is a completely different critter. Verbal irony is a character intentionally saying something different from what they mean. Good authors ensure the reader can see the irony. Great authors may also inject their own voice into the statements.
Spoiler alert: The idea of interpreting the author's voice through verbal irony is highly subjective. There’s no consensus whether a reader can or can’t interpret such a thing. After all we’ve covered, this inability to agree on something irony-related is shocking to you, I’m sure.
Despite the disagreements, verbal irony is a powerful, versatile tool for your writer’s toolbox. It transcends genres, creates nuance, animates characters, and engages readers. Situational irony does the same thing by providing the plot twists and forward momentum to keep readers turning those pages. It can range from the very simple muted type, to extremely complex plot changes, to the complete subversion of an established trope that leaves your audience in awe.
If you don’t like the muted type, it’s a simple fix: don’t use it.
If you use the muted type, either prepare to defend it, or learn Socratic irony and let the naysayers destroy their own arguments.
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