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February 3, 2022

What Is Dramatic Irony: Examples & Definitions for Screenwriting

At its heart, all drama is about the relationship between the viewer and the characters on screen. As a writer, you are responsible for managing this relationship.

One of the best plot devices you have at your disposal is dramatic irony. Dramatic irony can help build suspense and help make your viewers feel a stronger connection with the characters by giving them information that characters on screen are unaware of.

Here's how you can make dramatic irony work for you.  

What is dramatic irony?

Dramatic irony put simply, is when the audience knows something that the characters in your film or T.V. series don't. We can consider some classic examples. For example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Lady Macbeth furiously washes her hands to try and wash the blood - that no one else can see - from her hands.

She is dismissed as being mad, but we, the audience, understand this is a reaction to the part she played in the death of King Duncan that the other characters are not aware of.

More modern examples include Squid Game. From episode 2 onwards, the character of Jun-Ho is secretly following the games and is uncovering the secrets behind the game and the motives of the frontman. The audience is privy to this, but the characters playing the game are not.

Examples of dramatic irony in film

The villain exposed

A classic example of dramatic irony that you can utilize in your screenplay is where the audience gets to see the villain exposed. As an audience, we now know who is responsible for the murder, but the audience does not.

Recent examples include the BBC's Line Of Duty. We become aware of D.I Matthew Cotton's corruption and involvement with the Organized Crime Group (OCG) at the end of series one that plays out throughout series two and three.

Line of duty bbc one series still shot.
At the end of Series 1, writer Jed Mercurio reveals to viewers that D.I Matthew Cotton is corrupt and working for crime boss Tommy Hunter. His double life will remain a secret to the characters on-screen for the next two seasons, creating dramatic irony.

We filp the "whodunnit" on its head and create drama and suspense around how the crime is solved, and the villain exposed rather than answering who or how.

Dramatic irony, historical fiction, and biopics

If you're writing historical fiction, the most significant challenge you have is to help your audience forget about dramatic irony. For example, if you're writing a historical drama or a biopic about a very famous figure or event, most of your audience already knows how things turn out.

Nobody watching for the first time would have been surprised by the ending of James Cameron's Titanic, nor could an audience honestly believe that Nelson Mandela might be sentenced to death during the Rivonia Trial in Mandella: Long Walk To Freedom.

Your job as a writer is to move beyond the inevitability of history and position us in the moment.

A great historical fiction drama helps viewers see how differently things could have turned out at the most minor change of events. In a great historical fiction or biopic, an audience should suspend their disbelief and forget what they know about where the story is heading because they are so caught up in the story's drama.

The climax of Darkest Hour, a biopic detailing Churchill's decision to carry on fighting and not try to negotiate a peace deal with Germany, is a great example. Churchill goes onto the London Underground and asks ordinary passengers if they would enter into a peace deal right now with Hitler.

Churchill riding on the London Tube
Churchill, unable to decide whether Britain should make peace with Hitler in 1940, asked ordinary Londoners on the Underground for advice in Darkest Hour.

The people on the Tube reject this, saying they will never surrender, and Churchill seems to have made up his mind. For a brief moment, we forget what we know will happen and instead focus on Churchill in that particular moment.

Subverting your audience's expectations: situational irony  

In the trailer for Amazon's smash-hit, The Man In The High Castle, Frank, and Juliana can be seen watching a film of V.E. day celebrations.

"It shows us winning the war," Juliana remarks. Frank replies, "But we didn't win the war." This is an example of situational irony. As an audience, we think we know how everything will happen.  

The show is set in 1960s America. But it soon transpires we know nothing about the dystopian world these characters live in.

This is a world where President Roosevelt was assassinated before he could enact the New Deal, where the Nazis have taken over the East Coast of America and draped swastikas over the subway, and John F. Kennedy Airport is named after George Lincoln Rockwell, a long-forgotten Nazi in our timeline, but a significant player in the show's timeline.

In another scene, Trade Minister Tagomi - having traveled to our timeline - asks his junior to search for Nelson Mandela, Lolita, and The Cuban Missile Crisis and can find no reference to them. In another episode, Joe Blake attends V.A. - Victory in America - day celebrations.

These are all great examples of situational irony - this is different from dramatic irony - because what we as viewers expect to happen is subverted. It is not the characters who don't know what is about to happen to them and us as all-knowing viewers but us the characters who know everything and us the audience who are in the dark.

Situational irony is excellent if you're writing dystopian fiction; it can draw the audience in and make us curious about the world that our audience lives in.

Dramatic irony is a great tool

Dramatic irony is a great tool you can use to create drama and suspense in your scripts. At its core is the relationship between your audience and the characters you have made on-screen.

Whether you are writing historical fiction or a crime thriller, dramatic irony is an age-old technique that can help us propel our narratives forward and keep our audience engaged.

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What Is Dramatic Irony: Examples & Definitions for Screenwriting
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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