What is irony and do you even need to worry about it in your screenplay?


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As Seen On

In last weekend’s workshop, one of the questions that came up was: what the heck is irony??

And I’ve seen it before – whenever this topic comes up in a workshop everyone in the room gets tense. For some reason, writers get stressed out over irony. I suspect it’s because we never talk about exactly what it is, so writers can’t tell if they’re successfully doing it.

We hear about the need for irony – in a concept, or a character, or a story’s resolution, or in scenes – but if no one ever explains what that means, then we’re trying to hit a target we can’t see. Hence the stress.  ️

So today let’s give it a shot!

What is irony?

One of the dictionary definitions of irony is, “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.” And that is one way irony shows up in a screenplay – but it’s not the only one.

Irony for our purposes might be best described as, “a juxtaposition that creates a gap between expectation and reality.”

Irony is a great tool for hooking a reader’s interest because, very basically, it creates curiosity or surprise. Whether it’s in the concept, a scene, or an individual character, an ironic juxtaposition creates a question our brains crave an answer to. And that is powerful storytelling stuff.

If you think about it, irony is really another form of conflict. A juxtaposition that creates a gap we need reconciled? Isn’t that just a connection between two things that don’t quite go together? And isn’t that essentially just two things in some sort of conflict? Pretty much. And as we know, conflict is the lifeblood of stories.

Let’s look at three ways irony can and should show up in your screenplay.

Irony at the concept level

The concept is probably primarily where we think of irony playing an important role. It’s mentioned in Save the Cat (and elsewhere, I’m sure) as a vital element of a strong screenplay concept.

So what does a juxtaposition of contrary elements look like in a concept?

It could be:

  • A character-environment contrast, like a ditzy blonde attending Harvard Law (Legally Blonde).
  • A character-situation contrast, like a young boy who suddenly finds himself in a grown-up body and life (Big), or a guy who always puts himself first being hired to care for another person (The Upside).
  • A situation-goal contrast, like working with a notorious serial killer in order to stop another serial killer (Silence of the Lambs).
  • A character-goal contrast, like a Nazi businessman saving the lives of Jewish workers (Schindler’s List).

Or any other combination you can think of to make incongruous!

Often irony is what gives a concept its intriguing hook. It piques our curiosity and makes us want to know more. So it’s worth thinking about how you can tweak the elements of your idea to get an interesting or surprising juxtaposition – and get your screenplay started strong out of the gate.

Where else does irony show up in your screenplay?

The definition we started with — “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected” – fits pretty well for irony at the scene level.

In individual scenes we often see a twist or turn that sends the scene in some unexpected direction.

To subvert an expectation, that means the expectation first needs to be established. The ironic gap might come from the character’s expectation, or from the audience’s, or both.

You can also have irony within a character.

That might be an ironic gap between the character’s past (backstory) and present (status, situation, environment, or goal, for example).

Or the irony might come from the juxtaposition between a character’s external characterization and some aspect of his inner self.

The ironic gap you create is intriguing to the reader or audience, but there’s an added benefit, too. Contrast in the way a character is seen (external) and the way he feels or sees himself (internal) can create empathy and get us to relate to the character as well. Because who doesn’t feel a little misunderstood?

Will in Good Will Hunting is a great example of interesting juxtaposition. Not only does his genius-level I.Q. surprise us because we initially meet him in the role of janitor, but when we learn of his tough upbringing and environment we’re surprised again.

Be careful of certain character ironies, of course. When they’re overdone to the point of being cliché — like the hooker with a heart of gold, perhaps – they’re probably not as intriguing as a fresher juxtaposition you might come up with.

Layer irony throughout your screenplay

So do you need irony in your screenplay? Yes! You don’t want everything to be exactly as expected, do you? That would be predictable, and probably boring.

But the point here isn’t that you should choose one place to pop in a little irony and call it good. Irony can and should be layered throughout the screenplay. If you think of irony as just another form of conflict in your story, it may be easier to see the value of it as well as identify areas where it can be added.

Start with an expectation and then create a gap through a juxtaposition or contrasting element. Curiosity springs from that gap. And curiosity is a great tool in your arsenal for keeping a reader engaged with your story.


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