Verbal Irony In Movies. Definition, Examples & How To Use It


Definition: Verbal irony in film is when someone says the opposite of what they mean. Verbal irony in dialogue can be a throwaway joke or even a plot device.

Key Takeaways

  • Verbal irony enhances humor through contrasting expectations and reality.
  • Using verbal irony in dialogue can subtly reveal critical plot details and character traits.
  • Combining verbal and dramatic irony can create suspense and conflict, driving the narrative forward.

In this article, I’ll break down verbal irony in film and explain how you can apply it in your screenwriting.

The Different Types of Verbal Irony

Different types of verbal irony exist:

  • Jocularity: Playful or humorous behavior.
  • Sarcasm: Use of irony to mock or convey contempt.
  • Rhetorical Questions: Questions asked for effect, not requiring an answer.
  • Hyperbole: Exaggerated statements not meant to be taken literally.
  • Understatement: Presentation of something as less important than it is.

Each of these literary devices is useful for writing verbal irony.

I won’t review them here; you can read more about each by clicking the links above. That being said, I want to address the differences between verbal irony and sarcasm here.

The difference between Verbal Irony and Sarcasm

People often wrongly use the word “ironic” because they confuse verbal irony with sarcasm.

While sarcasm can be a form of verbal irony, not all sarcasm is verbal irony.

When someone is being sarcastic, they say something they don’t mean. It is often the opposite of what they mean, but it only has to be a statement that isn’t true.

While sarcasm can be a form of verbal irony, not all sarcasm is verbal irony.

Verbal irony is when someone says the literal opposite of what they mean or what is happening.

Sarcasm is frequently meant to be condescending and biting, while verbal irony can be used in many different contexts. 

Using Verbal Irony for Jokes

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To land a joke using verbal irony, the audience has to know that the person means the opposite of what they are saying.

This can be done by using situational irony to set up the joke


Imagine your character’s on the worst date of their life, and their mom calls and asks how it’s going.

Or they’ve just survived a horrific plane crash, and the credit card company calls and tells them they’ve just earned enough miles for a free trip to Hawaii.

You could have your characters say how they are truly feeling. Or you could use verbal irony to make them say the opposite, but as the audience can see, it’s the complete inverse of how they truly feel.

If it’s a good enough joke, the audience will laugh because they’re in on it!

Using Verbal Irony as part of the Plot

Verbal irony can also be used as a plot device to reveal plot or character information to move the story forward.

In the same way that verbal irony can be partnered with situational irony to create jokes, verbal irony can be partnered with dramatic irony to create conflict.


Imagine a scene where a character lies to another and says the opposite of what they mean.

As the audience, we know it because we’ve seen the truth of the situation in a previous scene.

Now, there’s a conflict that we’re following. Will the other characters find out the truth?

Using verbal irony to reveal the truth

You can inversely use verbal irony to reveal the truth later in a movie.

This can be an effective plot device, especially in a mystery or thriller, as the audience is part of the process as the protagonist realizes the truth, giving them that exciting  “A-HA!” moment alongside the lead.

Watch this scene from Mean Girls, uploaded courtesy of Youtuber Josie Leide, for an example of what I mean:

So, this example is technically a joke and a plot device, as Mean Girls is a comedy.

Still, it’s a great example of verbal irony being used to reveal information about a character. 

Using Verbal Irony for Subtext


Verbal irony can also be effectively used as subtext.

Subtext is what’s going on beneath the surface of a line of dialogue. It’s what the character really means by what they say. 

Read more about the different types of subtext in film.

The best writing, particularly the best dialogue, comes from using subtext to tell the story – not necessarily the words themselves. 

As humans, we often don’t say what we really want or what we really mean. We don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings by being direct but end up hurting them anyway.

When we write dialogue for our characters, we often do the opposite – we make everyone say precisely what they are thinking and exactly what they want.

The truth is that it’s both inauthentic to the human experience and not very interesting to read or watch. It sounds fake or wooden.

The best writing, particularly the best dialogue, comes from using subtext to tell the story – not necessarily the words themselves.

If you write with verbal irony and subtext in mind, you can write dialogue that informs the audience of what’s going on using clues.

Without the characters saying outright what they want, the conflict becomes inherent in the scene’s construction. Now you can have fun writing!

Give your characters and the actors who play them a meaty role to sink their teeth into by using verbal irony to convey subtext, reveal plot devices, and make clever jokes, and you’ve got a much more exciting script in your hands!

Final words: Use all three! 

Your movie script is only as good as the words on the page.

If you use irony correctly, you will have more compelling scenes than if you had straightforwardly written them.

You can then use the irony on the page to inform your storytelling as a director.

Read more on being both a writer and director.

  • Verbal irony in a scene gives the actors something interesting to play.
  • Situational irony in your story gives you something interesting to do as you direct a familiar genre or story.
  • Dramatic irony in a scene is an interesting way to build suspense and keep the audience glued to the screen. 

Practice incorporating these different types of irony into your screenwriting and see how it changes the plot, scenes, and characters for the better.

The Office TV series is an excellent example of an effective use of irony worth studying.

If you want to analyze the irony in The Office in more detail, I recommend you read “Humor in Verbal Irony in the TV Series The Office (US)” (2022) by Nabila Nurul Hasyim and Sharifah Hanidar.

Try it for yourself, and let us know how it turns out!


  • Grant Harvey

    Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.

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