Saturday, October 13, 2007

No, Alanis, it's not ironic

Sooooo here's the thing. Terry Rossio is fantastic and has written many fine screenplays and is a very pleasant man who is filled with knowledge.

But he's also wrong.

Recently he posted three new columns up at Wordplayer (yay! new columns!) and one of them was entitled "Dramatic Irony". And I'm sorry Terry, you know tons about writing a screenplay and making movies but you don't know jack diddly squat about how to explain dramatic irony. In fact, you're not actually defining dramatic irony at all.

It's okay. A lot of people don't get what irony is. In fact that cat up there is also incorrect, but that's to be expected since we all know cats can't even get basic grammar straightened out.

Irony is complicated and every year I spend a whole day just explaining the concept. I will share with you a summary of my lesson so we can all finally share a common vocabulary.

First of all, "dramatic irony" and just plain vanilla irony are two completely different things. There's a reason it's called dramatic irony but it's so very complex it would only confuse everybody more, so I usually just tell my students to memorize the difference and not worry about the dumbass who decided to create such a similar name for two different literary terms.

Dramatic irony happens when you know something a character doesn't know. It's as simple as that. When you see Michael Myers in that sheet with the glasses on looking at that dumb slutty girl on the bed you know she's going to die. You tell her to get away, but she doesn't have a clue because she thinks he's her boyfriend.

Oh, but he's not your boyfriend! Run, bitch! But she never runs because she's a dumb blond slut who drinks beer and has sex with boys and that's what she gets.

(That kills in the classroom when I act that whole scene out. I have them in stitches every single time.)

Anyway, we know it's Michael Myers. She doesn't. That's dramatic irony. It's good stuff for building suspense.

"Irony," however, is something completely different.

It's impossible to clearly define irony, hence the problem people have understanding it, but I do have a couple of functional examples I use in my classroom every semester.

I always define irony as an occurrence that is the opposite of what is expected.

So let's take one of Alanis Morrisette's many completely wrong examples.

A man is afraid to fly so he never takes a plane anywhere. Then one day he finally takes a plane and it crashes. Isn't it ironic?

No. It's really not. That's exactly what he expected to happen.

Here's ironic:

A man is afraid to fly and never takes a plane. In his complete and total paralyzing fear of flying he's convinced his flight to Arizona will crash so he takes a bus. His would-be plane lands safely but he wouldn't know because he was decapitated in a horrifying bus accident.


Oedipus Rex ran away from home so he wouldn't kill his father and marry his mother. But running away from home is what made him run into his real father and kill him, then find his real mother and marry her. If he hadn't run away from his fate he would not have made it happen.


The opposite of what you expect. Oedipus thought he'd be safe if he ran. Fear of flying guy thought he'd be safe on the bus. Oh, no, bucko. You got bitchslapped by irony.

Here endeth the lesson.


  1. Emily... YOU NAILED IT.

    He's got it mixed up with verbal and or situational irony.


  2. What are you? An English teacher? ;-)

    I've always thought the refrain of that Alanis song should have been, "Isn't that fucked up?"

  3. So am I right or wrong in having always thought that it was ironic that there are no ironies in the song "Ironic," (which actually then would make the title make sense).

  4. You are correct in that assertion, but I'm fairly certain that was not her intention when she wrote the song.

  5. thanks for the lesson. now I know the difference between irony and dramatic irony and can brag about it! :D

  6. See and here I would think the Alanis song gets it right. It's ironic because he was right, when we all thought he's wrong. Irony to us, not to him.

    Does that mean irony is also in the eye of the beholder?

  7. I would answer, David, except I'm not sure what the hell you just said.

  8. Lame as it might sound, when I think of defining irony, I always think of the scene in Reality Bites. Winona thinks it's crazy to have been asked in an interview to define irony... when she brings it up with Ethan, he says something like: "It's when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal or implied meaning."

    I thought it was a good gag. The queen of the supposed ironists can't even define the thing...

  9. I know this! I'm so proud of myself. :-)

  10. You are the kickboxer of literary criticism.

  11. Fair enough.

    Then I'll leave off the part where I ask if the first is true if irony is also only skin deep.

  12. And all us Brits think that the septics don’t get it - damn! ;-)


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