Writing Is A Bad Habit: It’s Like Something Out of a Cheesy Novel! a.k.a. Lampshade Hanging

Last week, we talked about embracing tropes and archetypes, as well as a little bit about how to use them properly.  In the further past, we specifically spotlighted reconstruction and deconstruction as means to that end, but there are other ways to make tropes acceptable and endearing to your readers.  Get ready for some interior decorating, friends, as we hang some new lampshades on everything!

Lampshade Hanging (or lampshading for short) describes the technique where a writer helps smooth over any egregious stretches of the reader’s suspension of disbelief or excessive trope use by calling it out directly in the narrative.  It can be a simple nod to the situation to a specific call-out of the trope and the genre of the narrative.  This is a time-honored technique (it’s good enough for Shakespeare; it’s good enough for you!), but to use it well, we have to understand why it works.

First, it can provide a sense of honesty, a connection between writer and reader, about the stretch of reality in the situation.  By approaching the breach of reality or the excesses of the trope with a self-deprecating, up-front face, the author brings himself down to the same level as the reader as both acknowledge that, sometimes, books have to be a bit crazy to make everything work and it’s best to accept and enjoy it.  The author isn’t trying to hide their plot holes or flaws.  Instead they are pointing them out actively and acknowledging their own flaws, a truthfulness many people may appreciate.

Secondly, it reconnects the trope or reality breach in a direct way BACK to the real world.  Let’s be frank.  Many things happen in the real world that we can’t directly explain.  Life really is strange and there are plenty of strange people, the very people who are the foundation for the tropes we use in our writing.  How many times have you said in real life, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that happened!’?  Probably a fair bit, I’d wager.  When something crazy happens in a book and your characters do that very thing, it makes the event suddenly far more believable, simply because it reminds us of the uncertainty of our own reality.

So we know why it works, so how do we mess up lampshading?  The simplest way is to use too many lampshades in a single work.  If you find yourself needing to call out too many excesses in a row, it means you’ve lost track of the narrative and you’re leaning on lampshades to make up the slack.  Lampshading only works when done sparingly, to deal with that one or two breeches or over-the-top tropes you absolutely need to make the story work, not as an excuse to go hog-wild.

Also, it’s important to note that the best uses for lampshading are for dealing with disbelief issues or tropes, and not so much for true plot holes.  Yes, sometimes they can help soothe over sudden deus ex machina and the like, but simply putting a fringed pink shade over a gaping plot hole won’t do.  It only makes you look like someone desperately trying to disarm critics instead of being honest with your readers.

What are your thoughts on lampshade hanging?  Do you have any anecdotes, thoughts, comments, or criticisms?  Leave them in the comments!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

One comment

  1. I think lampshades are like the tropes they try to hide. If a reader is amiable to accepting closely related tropes then the lampshade will be also. See how this goes: Superman can fly because he’s a superhero (trope). Okay? Superman can fly to outer space because he can fly. Okay? Superman can talk in outer space to Krypto the Superdog because … lampshade? He forced the remaining oxygen molecules in his lungs across the vacuum of space …. Ah, okay. That was corny but we’re already in self-propelling in outer space so why not a one-liner to your sidekick. It makes the story better and now I don’t mind the crazy flying in space stuff as much =)

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