This week’s challenge explores one of the oldest — and trickiest — literary devices.
In everyday language, we now use “irony” as a synonym for snark or sarcasm (or, sometimes, for unusually bad luck). At its core, though, irony is something much more interesting: a moment in which the same words mean different things at the same time, depending on who’s listening (and what they know about the situation at hand).
In this week’s challenge, I’d like to invite you to write a post built around an ironic moment. You could recount a scene in which what you said was the opposite of what you meant. You could tell a story in which one of the people involved is entirely unaware of the motivations of everyone else. Or address your post to another person, letting us — your readers — infer the real, very different message between the lines.
Irony is often funny, but it can generate more complicated emotional reactions, too. Take the clip below, from the Robert Altman classic, Nashville (I’ve been thinking about it in the run-up to today’s elections in the US — it’s the best election-themed movie I know). In this scene, a folk singer, played by Keith Carradine, sings about a romantic relationship of an unclear nature:
The remarkable thing here is that there are four women in the audience (played by Lily Tomlin, Shelley Duvall, Geraldine Chaplin, and Cristina Raines), who each has reasons to believe the song is addressed to her. The words alter their meaning radically in each scenario — what one woman might interpret as a flirty invitation to a fling can be read by another as a bitter accusation. It’s only us, the movie’s viewers, who are aware of the scene’s true emotional complexity (though we, too, ultimately don’t know who the real addressee is, even if we might have our suspicions).
Of course, not all of us are sleazy-yet-conflicted 70s folk singers. If you’re still not sure what to write about, here are some additional, more specific ideas to get your creative wheels spinning:
- Write about a song, a movie, or a work of visual art that has a very specific meaning to you — one that’s at odds with its generally accepted meaning (for example, a melancholic song that makes you happy, a goofball comedy that reminds you of a terrible relationship, etc.).
- Compose a dialog between an adult and a child where the language used means very different things to the kid and to us (tip: double entendres are a basic — and potentially very funny — form of verbal irony).
- Share one of your photos — choose one that conveys a particular mood, then tell us why our interpretation is entirely wrong.
- Pick a famous literary character who suffers a tragic end — Romeo, Anna Karenina, Captain Hook — and write a monologue from their perspective, on how everything’s going to work out just fine.
- Tell us about your ironic shirt, mustache, or Halloween costume — what makes it ironic? Do you ever use it unironically?
I look forward to reading your posts. I mean it!