“Ooh, a sarcasm detector,” says the Comic Book Guy. “That’s a real useful invention.” 

Then, the sarcasm detector, overloaded with a vicious cycle of sarcasm about sarcasm, beeps, trills, and finally, explodes.

It’s a classic joke from The Simpsons, but it also highlights our favorite definition of sarcasm: any type of verbal irony. But in literary form, sarcasm is technically distinct from the concept of meaning the opposite of what you say. Here’s what sarcasm really means, and how you can use it in your writing to spice up your dialogue and prose.

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What Is Sarcasm?

OK, yes. Sarcasm is verbal irony in which your words have the opposite of the intended meaning, but with a kicker: Sarcasm must be verbal irony directed at another person.

We tend to forget this strict sarcasm definition, but according to the magazine Cortex, the word only applies when we’re using verbal irony to criticize someone else. 

If you say, “It’s a beautiful day outside” when you’re soaking wet with rain, that’s using verbal irony. But if you’re in the backseat of a car and you say, “Way to see that red light, Mom,” then you’ve got bona fide sarcasm.

Types of Sarcasm

It’s difficult to teach how to write humor. Like all inspiration, if you try to pin it down, you might lose some of the magic. But there are a few types of sarcasm you can lean on when trying to explore it in your own writing.

Deadpan

“Oh, and whoever parked in my space, thank you. I enjoyed the walk.”

So opens Matthew Perry in a Saturday Night Live skit called “Sarcasm 101.” The secret behind deadpan sarcasm is simple: Put on a straight face. Keeping your delivery casual, say something that is obviously not true—like enjoying a longer walk—and let the sarcasm do all the biting.

Self-Deprecation

Technically, sarcasm is verbal irony directed at someone—and you count as someone. Some people use self-deprecating humor to disarm people and show that they don’t take themselves too seriously. 

One example of this is a classic stand-up joke: “They all laughed when I said I’d become a stand-up comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.”

Insults

Let’s be honest: Sarcasm’s best use is as a sort of verbal poisoned dart. It should go without saying that unless you want to make enemies, you should avoid this in everyday conversation. But if you want to write dialogue for a character with biting wit, you may occasionally have to think of a sarcastic line directed at someone else.

If someone says something obvious and you say, “Really, Sherlock?” then you have an example of a sarcastic insult. You’re saying, of course, that their conclusions aren’t exactly worthy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—even if the literal words suggest otherwise.

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Poetic Sarcasm

Poetic sarcasm is sometimes hard to identify. Often, what seem like poetic sarcasm examples are actually cases of dramatic or verbal irony, not directed at any particular person. But to spot it, watch for oxymorons like the first example below. You may find that instead of highlighting the narrator’s wit, the poet has left deeper meaning to mine there.

Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody!”

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

Emily Dickinson’s I’m Nobody! Who Are you? starts off with self-deprecating sarcasm. Obviously, the person writing is somebody. But when Dickinson later writes “How public—like a frog” it is to be known, we can only glean that the narrator has some sort of revulsion against recognition. Unless Emily Dickinson liked frogs.

Langston Hughes’ “Remember”

Go to the highest hill

And look down upon the town

Where you are yet a slave.

This isn’t sarcasm the way we typically interpret it. There’s no roll of the eyes, no rim shot from the comedian’s drummer. It’s not the quick, conversational dart meant to sting. 

But technically, it is sarcasm: Verbal irony directed at a specific, human audience. The line “where you are yet a slave” is not the objective truth, as Langston Hughes was born in the 20th century. Still, it hints at an underlying irony in the reader’s world that shows the literary possibilities of sarcasm. In the hands of a skilled poet, it can tackle uncomfortable themes and bite far harder than a quip.

Sarcasm in Literature

The Catcher in the Rye

Sleep tight, ya morons!

J.D. Salinger’s famous narrator, Holden Caulfield, clearly doesn’t want anyone to sleep tight. “Ya morons!” should be ample evidence of that. But sarcasm is just one of the weapons here. Throughout the work, it’s what Caulfield doesn’t say that keeps readers entranced to the central mystery of his psyche.

Pride and Prejudice

“Who that knows what his misfortunes have been can help feeling an interest in him?”

“His misfortunes!” repeated Darcy contemptuously; “yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.”

Do we really think Darcy agrees about “his misfortunes”? Jane Austen’s use of contemptuously uses only one word to establish a sarcastic tone for Mr. Darcy, highlighting his anger toward Elizabeth.

Bewilderment

His mouth soured again at my quaint objection.

You don’t have to write all sarcasm within the apostrophes. Richard Powers’ novel Bewilderment is a more recent example.Throughout the book, Powers’ protagonist—a father trying to raise a special-needs child—uses brilliant little touches like “my quaint objection” to establish how differently the son sees the world from the narrator. What comes out is a sarcastic bit of self-deprecation: The bewilderment of a father trying to understand his son’s nonverbal cues.

How to Write Sarcasm Without Making the Audience’s Eyes Roll

Unoriginal, cliche sarcasm is characteristic of middle-grade or young adult novels—where it can be used to great effect—or poorly-written adult prose. So what’s the trick? How do you write sarcasm in a way that hints at hidden meanings but doesn’t land flat with your audience?

  • Let the sarcasm do the talking. You’ll notice how the three authors listed above—Powers, Salinger, and Austen—don’t need to lay it on too thick. They trust their readers to understand that someone speaking sarcastically doesn’t mean what they say. If you ever feel the temptation to write, “[character] said sarcastically,” then you’re doing it wrong. Trust your audience to figure it out.
  • Recall who’s speaking the sarcasm, and why. If you get really good at writing humor, it can be tempting to lean on it—too much. You might find yourself forcing humor where none belongs. Remember that, like all literary devices, sarcasm should be a tool: to show how a character really feels, for example, or to reveal the burgeoning intelligence of a sassy, growing child.
  • Only employ examples of sarcasm when the conflict makes sense. A teenager speaking back to a parent? Makes sense. The President of the United States speaking sarcastically to a reporter when revealing a comet is about to hit the Earth? Happens less often. Employ sarcasm sparingly, or you may find yourself inserting it in situations it doesn’t belong.

Sarcasm in Writing: A Real Useful Invention

Learning how to use sarcasm is a bit like discovering the nuclear bomb: Yes, it works, but that doesn’t mean you should go blanketing the entire world with it. 

The best authors and poets use sarcasm as a method of exploiting the old “show, don’t tell” rule in writing. By having their characters and narrators say one thing and mean another, they create mini-puzzles for the reader. It’s up to us to suss out their real meaning.

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