Tag Archives: Dramatic Irony

How to Use Dramatic Irony in your Story

Statues of monkeys: see no eveil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Not in the Know

Dramatic irony typically occurs when the reader, audience, and perhaps, some, but not all of the characters in a story are privy to important information that the protagonist is unaware of, or presumes an opposite situation to be true.

Structuring Dramatic Irony

In order to create dramatic Irony in your story, do the following:

1. Show the reader or audience the kind of misunderstanding or deception that is being perpetrated. This could be intended or unintended.

2. Place the protagonist in that situation without revealing to her the information necessary for her to know she is being deceived.

3. Play the scene out, step by step, allowing the reader or audience to observe the protagonist suffering the consequences of events and actions, whilst thinking the situation to be precisely the opposite of what is actually happening.

In Moulin Rouge, Satin (Nichole Kidman) pretends she doesn’t love Christian (Ewan McGregor) so that he will leave her and so save his life—only he can’t know the real reason, for this to work. She pretends that she wants to stay with the Maharaja at Moulin Rouge. In other words, she has to hurt Christian in order to save him, precisely because she loves him, by pretending she doesn’t. The dramatic irony in the scene in which she reveals this to him is tragic and heart-rendering.

Satin: I can never see you again.
Christian: What are you talking about? What about last night?
Satin: I don’t expect you to understand. You don’t belong here. But this is my home: Moulin Rouge.

Christian stares at Satin in horror. Satin smiles weakly; hurries to the door.

Christian: What’s going on? Satin! There’s something wrong…

Satin battles to control her breathing.

Christian: You’re sick. Tell me the truth!

Satin gathers her last remaining strength and turns to him with cold lifeless eyes.

Satin: The truth…the truth is, I am the Hindi Courtesan Christian, and I choose the Maharaja. That’s how the story ends.

And with that, she turns and goes.

It is important to understand that in this superlative example of dramatic irony, we are made privy not only to Christian’s pain, but Satin’s as well, through our understanding that her actions are a sacrificial show of love. We get meaning and emotion from both sides, and this heightens the power of the scene.


Dramatic irony typically occurs when the audience, and one or more party is aware of the true nature of a situation while the protagonist presumes the opposite to be true. The effect on the reader and audience is one of heightened emotion.


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What is Exposition?

One of the most difficult things to do well in writing is to integrate exposition (essential information without which the reader/audience is lost), in a way that maintains the momentum of your story. Halting the narrative flow in order to provide a detailed background about a character or event is sure to lose you momentum. Yet, supplying detailed information is often unavoidable. The usual way to establish back-story, reveal plot, and explain character motivation, is by way of dialogue, whether directly through declaration, or indirectly through hint, implication, and subtext. Sometimes, however, these techniques are either too delicate, or not delicate enough, to carry the full burden of information. Dramatizing exposition by tying it to a structurally important event such as an inciting incident, turning point, or a character reveal, is one way of ensuring that forward momentum is maintained.

Inglorious Basterds

In Inglorious Basterds, a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Colonel Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) reputation of ruthlessness and Machiavellian intelligence is essential in building him up as a fearsome Nazi antagonist. The inciting incident occurs when Colonel Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa quizzes the dairy farmer, monsieur LaPadite (Denis Menochet) about the possible whereabouts of the Dreyfuses, claiming this to be the last step before he closes the book on their case. While the interrogation provides an ideal opportunity for exposition, Tarantino’s handling of it is nothing short of masterful. In having Colonel Landa ask that LaPadite sketch-in the Colonel’s own background, Tarantino infuses the scene with additional tension, irony, and ramps up the stakes — all without interrupting the forward thrust of the story:

Landa: Now, are you aware of the job I’ve been ordered to carry out?
LaPadite: Yes.
Landa: Please tell me what you’ve heard.
LaPadite: I’ve heard that the Fuhrer has put you in charge of rounding up Jews left in
France who are either hiding, or passing as Gentile.
Landa: I couldn’t have put it better myself. Are you aware of the nickname the people of France have given me?
LaPadite: I have no interest in such things.
Landa: But you are aware of what they call me?
LaPadite: I am aware.
Landa: What are you aware of?
LaPadite: That they call you, “The Jew Hunter”.
Landa: Precisely. I understand your trepidation in repeating it (…). Now I on the
other hand, love my unofficial title, precisely because I’ve earned it.

Landa’s dialogue reveals that he is a cunning interrogator, entrusted by the Fuhrer to ferret out Jewish families hiding in France. His pride in his job is obvious. This is a man who enjoys manipulating, hunting, and killing — an antagonist whose back-story makes him a worthy opponent for any protagonist. In designing the exposition in this manner, Tarantino accomplishes several things:

1. He transforms the mere flow of background information into dramatic irony by forcing LaPadite, who is afraid for his family, to talk about the feared and hated Landa in neutral terms.
2. It provides important information about Landa’s job in France, and the reason for his being in LaPadite’s house.
3. He establishes Landa’s reputation as the Fuhrer’s feared henchman.
4. Finally, it allows him to illustrate Landa’s vanity in his own reputation, deepening and colouring the Colonel’s character.


Exposition should be much more than the mere communicator of background information. Crafted well, it is an opportunity to deepen character, contextualize plot, and move the story forward.

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