Irony is a term that's frequently misused. Not that I blame anyone - it can be a confusing term. Especially because of Alanis' song. If you weren't an English minor, if you haven't wanted to be a writer for your entire life, if you haven't taken any poetry courses, if you're not in the writing industry - I can see why there would be some misunderstanding. It took me quite some time to grasp it myself.
Here are the basics. In writing, there are three main types of irony. Verbal, Situational, and Dramatic.
Verbal Irony occurs when what is said contrasts directly with what is implied. The literal words are, in fact, the opposite of what the speaker means.
- Example: In response to being asked if she's upset by her just come clean, cheating husband, a woman responds, "No. I'm happy, can't you tell?"
Situational Irony is a twist that occurs when a character is forced to face something because they specifically tried to avoid that very thing.
- Example: After school a teenager knows she's going to be in trouble at home. She decides to take a walk at a nearby lake, to avoid her mother. Unbeknownst to the teen, her mother has decided to blow of some steam by going for a walk at the same lake. In trying to avoid her mother, she's actually forced to face her sooner than she would have if she'd just gone home in the first place.
Dramatic Irony occurs when the audience/reader knows the situation and at least one of the characters doesn't. This is also called Sophoclean Irony.
- Example: Think Romeo and Juliet. There's tons of dramatic irony throughout the entire play. Of course you can think of the most well-known example, can't you? The end! Romeo doesn't know that Juliet is not really dead, but the audience does. Unfortunate for him. He drinks poison because he truly believes her to be dead. She wakes up, finds him dead, and kills herself. (Perhaps there's some situational irony lurking there as well, huh?)