If there’s any genre of literature designed to make fun of humankind, it’s satire. In both prose and poetry, writers have employed satirical techniques as far back as Ancient Egypt, utilizing the conventions and elements of satire to write about our follies.
Satire writing has become more popular in recent years. This is partially due to the internet: greater access to information has given writers more follies to satirize. It also helps that satirical publications, like The Onion and Reductress, have amplified satires about the modern day.
While headlines like “Overly Cautious Pregnant Woman Only Going To Ride Roller Coaster 6 Or 7 Times” seem silly and unsophisticated, there’s actually a fine art to satire that many readers and writers overlook. This article covers the basics of how to write satire: the different types of satire, the various elements of satire, and different satirical techniques essential to the form. Along the way, we’ll analyze those elements and techniques through some satire examples.
But first, what is satire? It’s important to understand both what it is and what it isn’t. Let’s define satire accordingly.
Satire Definition: What is Satire?
Satire is the art of mocking human follies or vices, with the intent of correcting or criticizing those shortcomings of human nature. It is, quite simply, a tasteful means of ridiculing human behaviors, institutions, and politics.
Satire definition: the art of mocking human follies or vices, with the intent of correcting or criticizing those shortcomings of human nature.
Now, satire isn’t just senseless ribbing. Writing about something with sarcasm, irony, or condescension doesn’t make something satirical. Nor does it count if you simply make fun of something: an essay that laughs at arson victims, for example, would just be cruelty.
Rather, satire must criticize a specific action, belief, or institution. It must poke holes in the logic of those actions, beliefs, or institutions, without ever explicitly stating the humor. Finally, it must showcase this flawed logic with the intent of creating awareness and inciting change.
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Let’s use an Onion article as an example. Read this brief story: “Mark Zuckerberg Asks Hawaiian Neighbor To Cut Down Unsightly, Overgrown Rainforest”
The title alone makes for a great bit of satire, but let’s break down what the article is doing.
- Realistic fiction: For starters, this never happened—but it sounds like something that would.
- Ironic use of “lack of respect”: Zuckerberg finds the forest’s presence to be disrespectful, though his request to disrupt the natural land is far more disrespectful.
- Hyperbolic language: Phrases like “unkempt biome” and “obnoxious waterfall” are hyperbolic and unusual, signifying the comedy of the article.
- Scornful Tone: The writer of the article clearly expresses a scornful, satirical tone.
- Subtlety: The article never says “Mark Zuckerberg is a bad person.” But it does quote him as calling native Hawaiians “disgusting nuisances,” using a word play device called “paraprosdokian.”
- Logical extremes: The idea behind this article is that a billionaire is making unreasonable, hurtful demands to satisfy his own comforts. This article takes that idea to a logical extreme.
- Juxtaposition of incongruous features: There’s no HOA for Hawaiian rainforests. The inclusion of this detail satirizes the bureaucracy that wealthy people use to their advantage: if there was a rainforest HOA, it would certainly come to Zuckerberg’s benefit.
We’ll examine these elements of satire more closely in a moment. For now, take note that all of these elements—irony, juxtaposition, hyperbole, etc.—are working together in this short but highly effective article.
Elements of Satire
Whether you’re writing Juvenalian satire or Horatian satire (terms we’ll define in a bit), the following elements are useful to writing satirical works. You’ll notice some of these elements working in both the above article and the satire examples we include later on.
- Realism: A work of satire must sound like it could actually happen in the real world. Now, this isn’t always easy, especially if your essay is about a politician condoning the consumption of newborns. What’s important is that satire does not draw attention to its own farce. The story must ostensibly treat its subject matter seriously, even when it uses literary devices in jest.
- Irony: Irony is when the opposite of what’s expected actually occurs. It is a contrast between “what seems to be” and “what is,” surprising and provoking the reader. Irony is pivotal to satire, as it allows the story to seem realistic while being hyperbolic, while also amusing the reader or challenging a certain assumption the reader has made.
- Hyperbole: Hyperbole is language that is incommensurate with the thing being described. For example, let’s say you walk outside on a hot July day, and you say “it’s a million degrees outside!” Hyperbolic language often makes for great satire writing. Note that “understatement” is an effective form of hyperbole as well.
- Tone: Tone refers to the author’s attitude towards a certain topic. Because the intent of satire is to criticize or make fun of something, the tone of a satire piece might be ironic, sarcastic, mocking, critical, or simply satirical.
- Subtlety: Satire writers need to strike a fine balance between realism and absurdism. The story should seem possible in the real world, but it should also lean into comedy and farce without explicitly stating the thing that’s being satirized.
- Logical Extremes: A logical extreme is when an idea or argument is amplified to a hyperbolic, but still possible, conclusion. Let’s take the argument “Cats are evil.” A logical extreme of this would be “Kitten Thinks Of Nothing But Murder All Day.”
- Juxtaposition of Incongruous Features: Juxtaposition refers to the close placement of two related objects in text. In satire, writers will juxtapose incongruous features—items which don’t belong next to each other, but are written about as though they do. An example of this would be “Geologists Find Historical Record of Last 3 Million Years in Woman’s Makeup Brushes.”
It is important to recognize that satire is all about imitation. The story seems like something that could or has happened in the real world, with only slight adjustments to make the story farcical or hyperbolic. These changes—these juxtapositions, hyperboles, and logical extremes—amount to a subtle, yet evocative, critique of the satire’s subject.
Works of imitation are often satire. Parody, for example, is a satirical imitation of another work of art, literature, or media. Similar to parody is the burlesque, which treats a serious work of art as something caricatured and risible. Slapstick, finally, can be satirical, especially when the characters of a slapstick comedy are public figures that the author views as unintelligent.
Pay attention to these elements at play in the satire examples we share throughout this article.
Satire vs. Parody
Because works of parody are intended to mock, riff, or imitate other works of art, parody is often confused with satire. Although parody can produce satire, there are a few key differences between the two.
Parody is always the comical imitation of a certain style or genre. One example of this is Don Quixote, a novel which parodies the romance novels of 17th century Spain. Another example is Candide. Candide is ostensibly a work of satire, but it uses parodies of the romance and adventure novel—for example, the picaresque and the bildungsroman—to construct this satire.
In media, parody is a huge aspect of Saturday Night Live skits. 1-800-Flowers, for example, is a parody of flower commercials on television.
Satire is much more complex than parody.
Satire is much more complex than parody: for one, it is much subtler than the parody, and for another, it specifically criticizes an idea, argument, or person. Parodies can make fun of certain styles or conventions without attacking a particular person or idea—though a parody can also be critical.
In short, parody is a work of imitative art that can stand on its own, or it can contribute to the development of a work of satire, but it is not the same as satire itself.
Satire vs. Sarcasm
A similar dilemma emerges with satire vs. sarcasm: they seem the same, but one is actually an element of the other.
Sarcasm is the use of ironic language to poke fun at another person’s faults. It is verbal irony with the intent of making fun. Let’s say you drop your phone and the screen cracks. Your sarcastic friend (or enemy!) might say “That was so graceful,” implying that what you did was the opposite of graceful.
Sarcasm, thus, is one of the elements of satire. A work of satire might have a sarcastic tone, employ sarcastic description, or rely heavily on inverted language.
People often employ the adjectives “satirical” and “sarcastic” as if they’re synonyms. They are, but they mean slightly different things. “Sarcastic” means “using wit and irony to hurt someone,” whereas “satirical” means “using wit and irony to expose or criticize human folly.”
Satire in Poems
Although most satire examples you’ll find are works of prose, you can also find satire in poems. Satirical poetry relies on the same techniques as works of prose do, but because the poem is constrained by poetry form, the poet must be much more discerning about which elements of satire to include in the poem.
Classical poets such as Dryden, Swift, and Shelley employed satire in poems, but let’s look at an example from the modern day: Read “Thank You For Waiting” by Simon Armitage.
The satire is readily apparent in this poem. The format riffs off of the language that airlines use to board their passengers. By taking this language to its logical extreme, the poem effectively satirizes the artificial class divisions perpetuated by airlines, corporations, and other wealthy, capitalist institutions.
What are the two types of satire?
What are the two types of satire? Literary theorists organize works of satire into two categories: Horatian and Juvenalian. These categories come from the names Horace and Juvenal, two poets of Ancient Rome.
Horatian satire is a typically lighthearted work that pokes fun at mankind’s follies. It is not caustic or overly critical. Rather, it laughs at the failings of mankind with a certain amount of sympathy, telling the truth about our imperfections with a smile.
By contrast, Juvenalian satire is much angrier, and is written with the intent of criticizing and condemning a certain person or institution that the satirist views as evil. These pieces of satire usually confront social and political issues.
There exists a third and less frequently discussed form of satire called the Menippean satire. This type satirizes certain ways of thinking, rather than particular individuals or groups. It tends to be a novel-length work that focuses on societal norms, often including philosophical discussions. Named after an Ancient Greek satirist, a contemporary Menippean satire might poke fun at, for example, altered states of consciousness (Alice in Wonderland).
The Menippean satire has its own history and genre conventions which are beyond the scope of this article. To learn more about those conventions, start here.
In the meantime, let’s look at some Horatian satire examples and Juvenalian satire examples.
Horatian Satire Examples
The Horatian satire is the most lighthearted form of satire. As such, these works of literature and journalism are intended to make you laugh—but that doesn’t mean a Horatian satire cannot also be thought-provoking.
Here are a few examples from literature:
1. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Gulliver’s Travels is a novel that satirizes the “travelers’ tale,” a subgenre of literature that was especially popular during the ages of exploration. In the novel, Lemuel Gulliver’s travels take him to a land of tiny people (Lilliput), a land of giants (Brobdingnag), a floating island of the arts (Laputa), and a land of talking horses (the Houyhnhnms).
Throughout these travels, Gulliver often compares the societies and governments of the people he meets with that of 18th century Europe. Each land has its own problems, taken to logical extremes. The Houyhnhnms, for example, are honest and upright people who don’t have a word for lying. (Their name is an onomatopoeia for the sounds horses make.) Yet, they’re happy to suppress Gulliver’s status as an outsider to the local humans (the Yahoos), indicating that they believe silence is better than lying.
Additionally, the character Gulliver is rather easily misled and rarely employs critical thinking. As a result, his outlook on humanity becomes more and more depressing as the story progresses, because he becomes aware of the flaws in each of these societies and comes to believe that all men are the same, rather than recognizing the nuances in human civilization and psychology.
As a result, each element of the story is carefully crafted satire. It’s Horatian satire because many of the situations are intended to make readers laugh, such as the Brobdingnag giants crafting a tiny house that they can carry Gulliver around in. Nonetheless, the novel prompts readers to examine the ways they react to different cultures and lived experiences, as well as coming to terms with the fact that there is no ideal government.
2. The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales is noteworthy for a number of reasons, namely that it popularized the use of English vernacular in literature (when, previously, English was seen as a commoner’s language, and literature was written in Latin or French). Partially written in prose and partially written in verse, The Canterbury Tales provides an interesting window into culture and society during the turn of the 15th century.
It is also, when closely examined, a work of satire on the peoples of England.
The Canterbury Tales revolves around a group of pilgrims regaling each other with stories of their lived experiences. Those experiences range widely: characters include a friar, a knight, two nuns, a shipman, a physician, a cook, a pardoner, and many more. Each person’s tale is inevitably informed by their class and social standing. As a result, their stories end up being satires on the lived experiences they represent and, more broadly, satirize elements of medieval society as a whole.
For example, the Nun’s Tale satirizes “courtly love,” a literary genre (and true-to-life representation) of what relationships looked like among the ruling elite. The Nun’s Tale takes place in a barnyard, not in the high courts, which makes a mockery of the acts of chivalry described by the Nun.
The 15th century was a time of great social upheaval for Europe, particularly England, where the emergence of a merchant class and a (non-religious) intellectual class spawned new ideas about the structure of society. The Canterbury Tales capitalizes on these changes by satirizing the societies and psychologies of people in each class.
3. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is most frequently heralded as one of the first time travel novels. Apart from this, it is also a hilarious Horatian satire on the values of medieval Feudalism.
In the novel, Hank Morgan, an engineer from Connecticut, inadvertently travels to 6th century England after being struck in the head. Hank convinces the people of his “magical powers” by telling them about the future. Doing this, he gains power in King Arthur’s course and tries to bring modernity to the 500s. This results in a satire of the values and institutions in both medieval society and 19th century America.
For example, Merlin creates a veil of invisibility, which Sir Sagramor wears in a duel against Hank. Hank pretends that he can’t actually see Sir Sagramor, satirizing the superstitions about magic, as well as the institution of chivalry, prominent in medieval England.
Through the juxtaposition of incongruous societies, Mark Twain pokes fun at human society 1300 years before Twain’s time, while also demonstrating parallels between people then and now.
For contemporary satirical journalism, The Onion and Reductress are both generally examples of Horatian satire, though both are occasionally Juvenalian.
Juvenalian Satire Examples
While Juvenalian satire can certainly make readers laugh, the intent is to ridicule the actions and philosophies of certain societies and institutions. As such, the following Juvenalian satire examples often bear resemblance to the politics of their times, taking political philosophies to their logical extremes.
1. “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift
“A Modest Proposal” is quintessential Juvenalian satire. Written in 1729, the essay satirizes British policy concerning Ireland, as Britain’s occupation of the Irish state routinely caused famine and strife. The essay was originally published under the title “A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.”
The essay’s satire is effective precisely because of its shock value. Swift first describes the plight of Ireland, particularly the suffering of its many beggars and hungry citizens. Then, without warning, Swift’s essay pivots to the nutritional value of eating 1 year old babies (a juxtaposition of incongruous features, and an argument taken to its logical extreme).
Much of the essay is then devoted to the logic behind eating infants: the many ways they can be cooked, the financial benefits, and how it will resolve other issues like murder and taxation. The essay amounts to an argument that is almost convincing. If the reader doesn’t think about the morality of eating children, the satire is almost actually effective in proposing that the consumption of infants is pragmatic policymaking.
Nonetheless, the reader comes to sympathize with the Irish and hate the narrator of the essay, effectively undermining the policymaking decisions of 18th century Britain. Because this essay is criticizing British policymakers and their treatment of the Irish people, there is no doubt that the caustic tone of this piece makes it Juvenalian satire.
You can read “A Modest Proposal” for yourself at Project Gutenberg.
2. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Animal Farm is a Juvenalian satire that retells the establishment of the Soviet Union with farm animals in place of political leaders. As such, it adapts the form of the fable into a satirical novella about Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, and the dramas that unfolded with the overthrow of the Russian monarchy.
Animal Farm begins on an old, dilapidated farm, run by the careless taker Mr. Jones, who represents the monarchy. The pigs band together around the wisdom of Old Major, an elderly pig who represents Lenin, as well as Karl Marx and his teachings. Inspired by the prospect of freedom from Mr. Jones, the animals revolt and claim the farm for themselves.
Much like the beginnings of the Soviet Union, the newly run Animal Farm begins in prosperity. The animals work to modernize the farm and make it self-sustaining, able to nurture all of the animals equally.
Before long, however, some of the farm’s leaders begin to grapple for power. Snowball, who represents Trotsky, tries to maintain the ideals of equality and progress espoused by Old Major (a philosophy called Animalism in the book). Napoleon, who represents Stalin, wants to seize power for himself. To do this, he uses a pig called Squealer, who represents Molotov, the Soviet Union’s head of propaganda. Squealer convinces the farm animals that Snowball is conspiring against the farm, even though it’s really Napoleon who’s conspiring.
The novella then follows how Napoleon abuses the language of progress to satisfy his own needs, hoarding wealth from the farm animals he claims to represent.
What makes this a work of Juvenalian satire? For one, it’s no subtle insult that the leaders of the Soviet Union are represented by pigs. But the work’s satire comes from its farcical resemblance to Europe’s political situation in the first half of the 20th century. Orwell takes Soviet propaganda to its logical extreme, showing how easy it is to manipulate an entire farm (or country!) through the manipulation of words and ideas.
3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Another work of mid-century satire, Brave New World satirizes the ideal utopian society, presenting a world in which everyone is happy and nothing has meaning. In the novel, people are artificially manufactured and born into a certain social class, based on the intelligence and strength they are bestowed upon their manufacturing.
The novel primarily follows Bernard Marx, a high class citizen who starts to question the social structures of the utopia. The society functions in large part due to Soma, a drug that manufactures happiness and is frequently taken by all citizens of the world. Soma allows people to be satisfied with their place in society, so nobody questions the flaws in this apparent utopia—except for Bernard, who doesn’t consume the drug, as well as Bernard’s friend Helmholtz, a writer who struggles to write when he can’t experience his own suffering.
The novel follows Bernard’s reckoning with society, including his witnessing the lives of Native Americans who don’t live in the modern world, and what happens when those Native Americans, who don’t live a manufactured life, find themselves in the manufactured realities of the “utopia.”
What makes this a piece of satire is the extension of social ideals to their logical extremes. For example, the people in Brave New World are sexually liberated, in part because the society has controlled for the possibilities of pregnancy and STIs. When John, a Native, falls in love with Lenina Crowne, he ends up committing suicide because he can’t support her sexual freedom, suggesting there’s a certain loss of humanity that comes from this liberation.
Another example is a satire of contemporary media. Before John commits suicide, he exiles himself to a lighthouse, where he self-flagellates in the hopes of purifying himself of modern civilization. What he doesn’t know is that he is secretly being filmed. When that film is released, all of society zeroes in on John and his strange behavior. This spectacle resembles, in large part, our contemporary lust for information, to the point that we invade each others’ privacy. Huxley wrote this novel far before the advent of social media, but now that we’re constantly filming each other for fame and spectacle, how far off was he?
How to Write Satire
How did the great satirists of history pull off such effective works of literature? In addition to having savage wits and keen eyes for politics, satire writers followed a few strict rules. Here’s how to write a satire in 5 steps.
1. How to Write Satire: Familiarize yourself with satirical techniques
Satire is a difficult genre to pick up, which makes it essential to read like a writer. Read the satire examples we included in this article, and analyze how the following satirical techniques are employed:
- Logical Extremes
- Juxtaposition of Incongruous Features
These elements of satire, when employed strategically, combine to make effective, poignant, and gut-busting stories.
2. How to Write Satire: Begin with a topic or issue you’d like to satirize
Satire can criticize both local issues and global ones. The Canterbury Tales satirizes the stories and personalities prominent in medieval England; conversely, Brave New World criticizes the Western view of utopia and the direction of global society.
Regardless of what issue you choose, do your research. It’s important to understand the arguments for and against a certain issue, and the logic and reasoning behind those arguments. That way, you can take those arguments to their logical extremes, undermining the rhetorical strategies used in favor of the issue you’re against.
For example, let’s say you wanted to write a piece of satire on removing the penny from U.S. circulation. An argument in favor of this is that it could curb inflation. You could then take this argument to its logical extreme. Imagine a country in which we made every coin out of pure gold, and everyone starts fighting with each other for change? Or, imagine a country in which the lowest monetary denomination is the $10 bill, and, again, everyone starts fighting with each other for change?
3. How to Write Satire: Build a narrative
Once you have a topic and a stance on that topic, build a story around the argument you’re trying to undermine.
This is where the art of storytelling, and elements like character, plot, and setting, can prove extremely useful. For example, read this brief Horatian satire from The Onion: ‘This City. These People. All Sheep, And I Am Their Shepherd,’ Says Eric Adams, Looking Out Over New York.”
NEW YORK—Clasping his hands behind his back and looking out over Manhattan’s iconic skyline, New York mayor Eric Adams was reported to have said, “This city. These people. All sheep, and I am their shepherd,” as he launched into a monologue Wednesday. “I and I alone am the line between order and chaos, guiding toward the light these confused, woeful masses who wander in darkness,” said Adams, who reportedly cast his gaze on the citizens below and contemplated how fortunate they were to have a place in the palm of his merciful hand. “Without me, without my power and my will, each of these 8 million souls would be condemned to a wretched life and death amidst a twisted, seething cesspool of humanity. As they cling to a crumbling precipice, they reach out, in their desperation, to the one man whose whims control their destiny: to me, to their protector, to New York’s greatest benefactor, to Eric Adams!” At press time, sources reported Adam had retired for the night to his apartment in New Jersey.
If you know anything about New Yorkers, you know we always hate the mayor. Let’s deconstruct what this piece is doing:
The issue: At the time of this article’s publication, Adams has been NYC mayor for just over 4 months. In that time, he’s had a formidable media presence, but he often sounds a bit self-aggrandizing when he talks about the city and the role he’s going to play in running it. In a recent video message, he’s quoted saying “I will not stop until the peace we deserve becomes the reality we experience.” The issue is that the mayor might be all words, no action—especially when those words are already overwrought.
The satire: This article amps up the melodrama, taking Adams’ speech to a logical extreme. The parody of his melodrama builds Adams up to be a god-like figure, as he is the difference between “order and chaos,” between “life and death.” He is even “the one man whose whims control [New York City’s] destiny.”
The storytelling: This article makes a sort of caricature of Adams. A caricature is a type of characterization in which the character is one dimensional and distorted for the audience’s pleasure. The story, here, is that Adams went off on a monologue before retiring to his non-NYC apartment, making the story’s structure a satire for his administration: all talk, no action.
4. How to Write Satire: Surprise the reader
All works of satire have an element of surprise. The reader shouldn’t be able to expect where the story goes, otherwise it’s not doing a good job of delighting and provoking the reader. As such, your satire should have a twist, even if that twist doesn’t occur until the final sentence.
Pay attention to the twists in the above satire examples. In “A Modest Proposal,” the twist is the proposal itself: that the solution to Ireland’s poverty is to cook and consume 1 year olds. In The Onion article about Eric Adams, the twist is that he goes home to New Jersey.
The twist should both surprise the reader and advance a certain satirical argument. Whatever you do, be clear about what you’re mocking and criticizing, because this will inform what your twist is and help you stick the landing.
5. How to Write Satire: Edit for clarity and laughs
Can you make your story more ironic, hyperbolic, or realistic? Are you juxtaposing unalike items in clever ways? Is it clear who or what your satire is criticizing? Ask yourself these questions as you edit your piece: the goal is to distort reality just enough that the reader knows this is satire, but to still be hyperbolic and ironic, even if the work is more Juvenalian than Horatian.
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