Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, a story demands that the author use a risky device. It might be a cliché – a worn-out metaphor or overused plot line – or it might be a leap in logic – an unreasonable coincidence or contrived solution. Usually, the best thing to do is get creative and avoid falling back on a device that threatens to irritate the reader, but writing is an art, not a science, and that isn’t always possible. That’s why, when a device threatens to let you down, you need to take action – you need to hang a lampshade on it.
What is a lampshade?
‘Hanging a lampshade’ on (or simply ‘lampshading’) a device means to deliberately draw the reader’s attention to something they might not approve of. For example, an unlikely coincidence occurs in your plot and – instead of carrying on as if was a reasonable occurrence – the characters comment on how unlikely they find the event.
It’s a risky device – after all, if the reader hadn’t noticed the moment, their attention is drawn to it – but on certain occasions, it’s exactly what a story needs. What are those occasions? Well…
Heading off disbelief
The main purpose of lampshading a moment or device is to take control of the reader’s reaction. Instead of them noticing a flaw and becoming irritated (or losing their suspension of disbelief), their attention is drawn to the flaw, it’s addressed, and, hopefully, they’re free to stop worrying about it.Hanging a lampshade on unlikely moments helps the reader accept them.Click To Tweet
One of the most common reasons for lampshading in fiction is to address and dismiss the artificial nature of fiction. Many writers have characters reflect that what’s happening to them is something they’d only expect in fiction, or even that the events they’ve encountered wouldn’t be believable in fiction.
SIR TOBY BELCH: Is’t possible?
FABIAN: If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
– William Shakespare, Twelfth Night
This kind of catch-all lampshading is a way of admitting to the reader that, yes, they’re reading fiction, and that means they can expect a variety of events and devices that aren’t truly realistic. By admitting that, however, the authors is attempting to sequester that thought in a single moment. Forcing the reader to confront this idea makes it less likely that they’re going to have a problem with it later on. For this reason, a lot of this type of lampshading tends to happen early in the story, especially if it’s a drama that needs the reader to commit to its internal logic.
I must begin with a coincidence which I would not dare to recount if this were a work of fiction.
– Mary Stewart, The Stormy Petrel
Using lampshading in this way also means that every reader confronts the thought at the same time, and the author can take a moment to put a solid argument to them. Throughout time, authors have been frustrated by the fact that life is full of ludicrous coincidences that they’d be laughed at for including in their fiction. Pointing this out can prepare the reader to accept coincidences, and creating a moment that puts this idea to them directly is a great way to do so. An effective lampshading is a way of gathering all your readers together, addressing the issue, and moving on without having to worry about it again.
Most of all, he never thought it legitimate that life should make use of so many coincidences forbidden literature, so that there should be the untrammeled fulfillment of a death so clearly foretold.
– Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
To use lampshading in this way, it’s often effective to simply have the characters react as reasonable people. If something is coincidental or unexpected, have them react as if that’s the case – in fact, have them say it aloud.
This doesn’t just work with literary devices, but with setting, characters, and even dialogue. In Sandy Mitchell’s The Traitor’s Hand, a clichéd soldier character spouts the phrase ‘Do you want to live forever?’ while another character reflects that it’s something they’ve only ever heard in bad fiction. By lampshading this clichéd bit of dialogue, Mitchell gets to cater to the audience who enjoy the cliché and the audience who don’t.
In this way, clever lampshading allows the author to have their cake and eat it too, but it’s not an all-powerful device. Lampshading takes the edge off the author’s irritation, but push the reader too far and it won’t save you, especially in the case of contrived events. Pointing out the coincidental nature of life is good for one or two coincidences, but it won’t change the things your reader fundamentally wants and needs from their fiction.Lampshading is a useful device, but it has hard limits. Click To Tweet
Keep in mind, also, that it’s not enough to just point out what you’re doing – the lampshading itself should be enjoyable. Often, that means it should be funny.
Making the reader laugh
Lampshading is generally funny by its very nature – if it’s done in time to head off the reader’s irritation or suspicion, it surprises them, and that’s at the heart of humor.
It can, however, be used for humor in and of itself. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a loving pastiche of fantasy writing in which stories have a magical momentum – characters are often caught up in stories that they know have to end a certain way, and must try to survive by working with or subverting the narrative they’re caught up in. Mad scientists are shown to be disappointed when their insane rants aren’t punctuated by lightning, and a group of heroes trying to kill a dragon know that their arrow will only fly true if it’s a million-to-one shot, and promptly set about making the shot more difficult to guarantee their odds are bad enough to succeed.
This kind of funny lampshading burrows down to another layer of realism – the author acknowledges the conventions of story but, in doing so, makes it clear that they can also overrule them.Funny lampshading buys you leeway with the reader – use it wisely.Click To Tweet
It can be particularly effective to employ some lampshading and then reverse it – to have a coincidence occur, to have the characters recognize it as such, and then to reveal that, actually, it resulted from a reasonable series of events. Or, similarly, to have a character try to use something that’s a genre convention (‘Follow that car!’) only to have it backfire. This way, authors get the usual advantages of dealing with disbelief but also the goodwill of not having given the reader something they actually have to accept. It’s only a little more wiggle room, but it buys you even more forgiveness later.
Sometimes, though, lampshading isn’t about addressing something that’s inherently problematic, but rather a problem that arises out of a new context.
Keeping things fresh
While useful in drama, lampshading is more common in comedy, and especially serial comedy. Here, there are a lot of clichés and tropes that still make the audience laugh, but which they understand to be inherently contrived. It’s unusual, for instance, to see a sit-com do the ‘character accidentally schedules two dates at the same time’ episode without someone lampshading what a cliché it is.
Here, it’s not that something poses an inherent challenge to the reader – the ‘two dates’ plot was genius when it was first invented – but that accrued context has changed how its perceived, and the author needs to deal with that.
JD: I’m doing this thing where I take a slice of someone else’s wisdom and use it in my own life.
JORDAN: Seems coincidental.
JD: And yet I do it almost every week.
– Andy Schwartz, ‘My Waste of Time’ from Scrubs
This might be external – a plot event that’s been overused in other stories – or internal – a structure to your stories that was novel at first but has begun to necessarily repeat. For example, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book necessarily take place over a school year and tend to present a year-long mystery that the protagonists solve and which Harry ultimately survives in a manner that maintains his status quo. In the first few books, this isn’t yet an established pattern, but later in the series, Rowling’s readers have seen the same structure a handful of times, and lines like ‘Gee, Harry. I knew you’d be innocent. You never get in trouble.’ can be read as lampshading the character’s relative, necessary personal safety.
If Rowling intended this, it’s not used in isolation – the books grow darker as they progress, with the costs of each adventure increasing and threats extending over multiple books – but lampshading can give you the breathing room to make this kind of transition naturally.
This type of lampshading is best used across a series, since it deals with the reader’s immediate experience of the story, but you can also use it to address the response to your work on a wider scale.
Sometimes, lampshading can be a way of addressing, and thus preventing, criticism. This differs from heading off disbelief because it’s not about negotiating a halfway point where the reader is mollified, but defusing an argument before it can be made.
Many readers, for example, have pointed out that passages in Brian Keene’s Darkness on the Edge of Town in which the characters discuss Stephen King’s The Mist may be there to preemptively address similarities between the two stories. Intentional or not, these passages serve to defuse any criticism along these lines – it’s hardly impressive for a critic to observe something the novel itself points out, and the reader is far less likely to feel any growing frustration at something the story addresses directly.
Of course, this wouldn’t work as well if Darkness on the Edge of Town didn’t also stand on its own merits, but it does serve to disarm any propensity readers might have had to take against the narrative.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air did something similar when the character of Aunt Vivian was recast. A subject of rumors, the recasting was also immediately noticeable. Instead of asking the audience to gradually accept a new actress, the show confronts the issue directly, with one character saying ‘since you had that baby, there’s something different about you’ and another looking directly at the camera to underline the intent. It’s not a lot, but it focuses the audience reaction into one moment, where that reaction can be dealt with humorously and then forgotten. No viewer or critic can then complain about the recasting being distracting without repeating something that the show itself brought up, and since the show made it funny, they were far less likely to be inclined to do so anyway.
As ever, this form of lampshading isn’t bulletproof – it buys you goodwill, but if there’s a real problem, there’s a real problem. Lampshading lets you deal with it on your terms, but you still have to deal with it, and that means understanding why you’re lampshading in the first place.
Finding your lampshade
Good lampshading depends on knowing what needs a lampshade and what doesn’t. Success lies in picking up on something that the reader was only half-thinking and expressing it – addressing the issue before it becomes a problem. If a reader thought a plot device was reasonable, or invested in a hackneyed bit of dialogue, then lampshading can feel like the author mocking them for their investment.Be sure something is actually a problem for the reader before trying to defuse it.Click To Tweet
The best way to avoid this issue is to reserve lampshading for when it’s absolutely needed. After all, any problem that lampshading is intended to fix is also something you should consider reworking. It’s only when the potentially problematic device is still the right one that lampshading needs to come into play – Rowling’s structuring of Harry’s school years is exactly right for the series, for instance, it just also necessitates a degree of structural repetition that it’s sensible to soften with a lampshade or two.
Finally, keep in mind that lampshading something doesn’t mean that you’re not doing it. It softens the impact, but a cliché with a lampshade on it is still a cliché, and a stereotype with a lampshade on it is still a stereotype. Some authors have a tendency to indulge in writing habits they’d usually avoid, confident that lampshading their decision raises it up onto an ironic plain where it doesn’t ‘count’. It does, and the ultimate test of whether or not to lampshade is whether or not the device in question is something you’re sure you need. If so, lampshading can make it more palatable to the reader. If not, the answer is probably to rewrite it.
Like salt, a little lampshading goes a long way, but it’s often exactly what a dish needs to shine. Done correctly, lampshading takes something that a reader might have hated and turns it into an enjoyable moment that enhances their investment in the story as a whole.
What moments have you needed to lampshade in your own writing, and what lampshading have you noticed in other fiction? Let me know in the comments, Or, for more great advice, check out How To Write A Book Series That People Finish Reading and The Cliché Hunter’s Guide To Improving Your Writing.