Lampshading in storytelling. What is that?

lampshading in storytelling

“Lampshading” is one of my favourite and least favourite writer tricks: It’s where you acknowledge a shortcoming in your plot through some dialogue, usually jokey, as a way of winking at the audience and moving on. Yes, I know this is a giant hole in my story, but I couldn’t come up with a solution, so let’s have characters make a meta-statement on it, and we’ll all feel clever then, because meta is fancy. An inoffensive lampshade would be when, say, Lost characters toward the end of season 1 remark on how strange it is that none of those other background people on the island seem to do much except follow the main characters from beach to cave and back again. An annoying lampshade would be if someone on Lost during the final season said, “Hey, too bad none of these plot strands that people have dedicated their entire lives to decoding will never amount to anything. Talk about lost! Ha ha!” Of course, no one really did that, but it wasn’t because it wasn’t true.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

‘Lampshade’ describes aspects of storytelling where potential concerns, criticisms and arguments of the audience are answered in the text itself. Lampshading is just a regular storytelling technique. It can be done badly and done well.

Done well, the audience won’t even notice it. Good lampshading doesn’t mask glaring inconsistencies in plot, but prevents audiences from going off piste. To lampshade is to manage reader experience by anticipating what many people will be thinking.

Once you know the trick, you see it everywhere. (Like Saving The Cat.)

Lampshading prevents the audience from thinking things like:

  • “Why don’t they just communicate with each other? This whole story would be over!”
  • Why is she going outside! Doesn’t she know there’s a serial murderer out there?
  • Why doesn’t he just… (Any sentence beginning with that needs lampshading.)

Also known as Spotlighting, sometimes as ‘The Cousin Larry Trick’. Here’s the Lampshade Hanging entry at TV Tropes.

Lampshading In Comedy

This joke would fall under ‘jokes about jokes’, the eleventh category of Scott Dikkers’ taxonomy of humour. (Scott Dikkers of The Onion.)

GUARD #1: What, ridden on a horse?
ARTHUR: Yes!
GUARD #1: You’re using coconuts!
ARTHUR: What?
GUARD #1: You’ve got two empty halves of coconut and you’re bangin’ ’em together.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to lampshade the fact that production could not afford horses for a medieval movie.

Monty Python: Coconuts (on YouTube)

And an example from science comedy:

“…If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts; Just repeat to yourself it’s just a show, you should really just relax…”

From the theme song to Mystery Science Theater 3000, effectively ironing over the pesky scientific impossibilities.

Whereas writers talk about ‘lampshading’, the world of academia uses a different set of terminology. In this case, the comedians are playing with framing in a metafictive, possibly Postmodern way.

In the widest sense of the term, we’re not just talking about inconsistencies. Lampshading can do many jobs.

Lampshading can be a clumsy hack to fix poor plotting, and is generally used derisively. But it’s such a useful word. What if we instead use it to describe the broader storytelling technique in which a writer anticipates where the story may break verisimilitude (the appearance of reality), and takes steps to prevent that disconnect from happening in the first place?

Example: Hey, why don’t they just…

In the psychological thriller Panic Room starring Jodi Foster and the young Kristen Stewart, it isn’t until the end of the action, after Jodie Foster’s character has left the panic room and smashed all of the cameras that one of the bad guys says by way of lampshading, “Hey, why didn’t we do that?”

This is a bit of a hack, and I guess the screenwriters couldn’t see another way past this plot knot, because the last thing you want an audience to say is, “Why don’t they just…” If you’re going to have a character say it, there had better be a good reason why the characters can’t just do that very thing.  

Clarence Coles Phillips. Two lampshades and a woman staring at a slice of toast.

Schitt’s Creek is a Canadian sit-com about a super wealthy family who are ripped off by their business manager. When we meet them they’re suddenly poor and must move to a tiny town the father purchased for his son as a joke. First, there’s some lampshading that needs to happen in episode one: If Johnny wanted to get David a gag gift, why wouldn’t he just Photoshop the deed? Why would he go out of his way to buy an entire town, as a joke?

Below, their lawyer sits the family down and explains their riches-to-rags situation. Alexis asks the question an audience might ask when trying to figure out how this eccentric family ended up owning a small town:

See also: Why does Schitts Creek take a season to get ‘good’?

Example: Why don’t you just talk to them?

Another really common thing that needs lampshading: “Why don’t you communicate?” Let’s face it, if every fictional character had impeccable communication skills, stories would be far more boring, plots far less convoluted.

If an audience will likely ask, “Why doesn’t she just ask him, straight out?” this will require some managing on the part of the writer.

An excellent example can be found in Happy Valley, Season 3, episode 1, in which Sergeant Catherine Cahill discovers her grandson (now 16) has been secretly visiting his criminal father in prison. Catherine learns this unwelcome news while at work, from her boss, who has heard some gossip through the grapevine.

First, Catherine wonders aloud how her grandson could have been visiting a prison without her knowing. This covers another question audiences may have: Isn’t a sixteen-year-old old enough to get himself on a train? This short scene also anticipates another issue and answers it for us: Why didn’t Catherine (a sergeant, and personally affected by crime) know that Tommy Lee Royce had been transferred to a local prison? The character of Mike asks the exact questions the audience would ask. So does Catherine herself.

CATHERINE: How would they know our Ryan, for starters? Anyway, how would he get there He’s just gone 16 and he’s really not that well organised. He’s only just got a train to Leeds on his own, well, with Cesco, and that was a palaver. How the hell would he get to Gravesend and back on his own without me knowing?

MIKE: He in’t in Gravesend. Royce. He got transferred to Sheffield.

CATHERINE: When?

MIKE: 18 months, two years ago. Didn’t you know?

CATHERINE: Why would I, Mike? I thought there were a court order in place to stop him having any contact with either you or Ryan.

MIKE: So it doesn’t matter where he is.

CATHERINE: Yeah, there was, and I renewed it. I mean, it might have lapsed again by now because, I mean, it’s been, God, how long? Seven years? But that’s because I didn’t think I needed to renew it. He never mentions him, thank God. He never even thinks about him. I can’t remember the last time he mentioned him. I think she’s just, whatever she’s heard, I think she’s just… wrong.

MIKE: Can you ask him?

Happy Valley, Season 3, Episode 1

Catherine explains that she cannot just ask her grandson about Tommy Lee Royce. If he wasn’t thinking about him before, she doesn’t want to put the idea of him in his head. Later she speaks to another character in a cafe, who asks the same thing again. Catherine explains again. The writer clearly understood that, as a straight-talking, borderline aggressive sergeant, Catherine’s reasoning needed explaining (lampshading) for the audience.

Lampshading Unlikely Writing Skills In Non-Literary First Person Narrators

James Wood points out that lampshading is sometimes used by the ‘canonical’ writers to explain why their heroes seem to have such a lyrical style. What he describes might be classified as a type of lampshading:  

Humbert Humbert [in Lolita] famously announces that he has a fancy prose style, as a way, surely, of explaining his creator’s overdeveloped prose. Saul Bellow likes to inform us that his characters are “first-class noticers”.

How Fiction Works
Charles Elmer Martin aka CEM (1910-1995) New Yorker cover Nov 18 1967. Tiffany lamps in a shop window at night.

Example: Hey, why doesn’t she know that already?

In the Happy Valley example above, we saw an example of “Why doesn’t she know that already?” (Why doesn’t Catherine know Tommy Lee Royce has been transferred to a local prison?)

Here’s another example:

In Carrie, Stephen King embarks upon some heavy lampshading before the reader will believe that his heroine knew nothing about periods, even at the age of 16. He talks about how fundamentally Christian the mother is, and prudish. In the 2013 movie we are told that Carrie has been home schooled until recently, which prevents the reader from asking, “Well wouldn’t she know about periods from her friends?”
 

Example: Lampshading To Mask Inconsistencies In A Setting

Gregory Maguire lampshades in Wicked:

Even as he rejects Baum’s concepts, Maguire does an admirable job of explaining away the multiple inconsistencies in the Baum books—particularly in explaining how people can eat meat in a land where animals talk, teach and attend dinner parties, and in explaining the varied and completely contradictory histories of Oz. (As I’ve noted, these inconsistencies never bothered me much as a kid, and I expect that they can be waved away by “magic,” but they clearly at least nagged at Maguire.) In Maguire’s Oz, some Animals can talk, and some animals cannot, and the conflicting histories of Oz are woven into its religious practices and propaganda. This absolutely works for me.

Tor

The need to lampshade the fact animals eat meat is one faced by most (if not all) writers whose characters are in animal form. Most humans are happy to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, but what if your characters are pigs and chickens? What do you do then? Unless you’re writing comedy, you either have them eat jam on toast, fruits and cheeses (see the illustration of a breakfast scene in Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride).

As for Maguire, for some fans of The Wizard Of Oz, he didn’t do nearly enough explaining when he wrote Wicked. Here’s an excerpt from the most-liked review currently on Goodreads:

Things That I Really Wish Gregory Maguire Had Bothered To Explain That Might Have Made Wicked Worth Reading:
  • Why Elphaba is green (If you need to know this check out Why are witches green?)
  • Why Elphaba cannot touch water
  • The “Philosophy Club” which seemed to be some sort of bizarre sex club which was introduced towards the middle of the story, and then never mentioned again
  • How it’s physically possible that Elphaba gave birth to a son, but may actually not have, because she doesn’t remember it. (Maguire’s explanation is that she was drugged up on sedatives for the entire pregnancy and therefore cannot tell if she actually had a kid. Um…listen, Greg, I know you’re a guy, but I assure you, there is no drug on this earth or on Oz that makes a woman unable to remember giving birth)
  • What the hell the Clock of the Time Dragon was, and how it’s able to give puppet shows revealing the Deep Dark Secrets of characters’ pasts
  • Why Elphaba wanted the magic slippers so much
  • The backstory of the Scarecrow and why he hated the Wicked Witch of the West. (The Tin Man and Lion are explained, but I guess by the time he had to come up with a story for the Scarecrow, Maguire had used up all his creative juices. As a result, the Scarecrow just appears with the others at the witch’s castle, and even Elphaba can’t figure out why the hell he’s there)

Two different readers, two completely different expectations. The newspaper critic didn’t need McGuire to explain anything, whereas the Goodreads reviewer is clealry a mega fan and wanted everything lampshaded.

Writers are walking a tightrope here: Some readers will be distracted by lampshading of issues they never even considered, whereas other readers will contribute a lot to the story (possibly in ways the writer never even imagined) and will be left dissatisfied.

Example: Lampshading For An Audience Au Fait With Story and Narrative

The audience of Anne Rice are likely heavy genre readers, and Rice understood that.

In her werewolf novel The Gift, Anne Rice lampshades the fact that she is using tropes from older stories, while also taking the opportunity to complain about horrible werewolf stories in pop culture. (If you know what she had to say about Twilight, you won’t be surprised):

In most of the movies the gift didn’t have much of a purpose. In fact it was unclear exactly why cinema werewolves went after their victims. All they did was rip random people to pieces. They didn’t even drink the blood or eat the meat. They didn’t behave like wolves at all. They behaved as if… they had rabies. True, in The Howling they had fun making out but other than that what was the good of being a movie werewolf? You howled at the moon; you couldn’t remember what you did and then somebody shot you.

Anne Rice, The Gift, p90

This paragraph smooths the line between reality and fiction. If a reader thinks, “Oh, I’ve read all this before. Such-and-such a writer covered it,” then Anne Rice hasn’t done her job of creating an immersive storyworld. She creates an extra, in-between world: The fictional character of her novel lives in the same world as we do, with the same cultural influences.

Moral Lampshading

Especially interesting when looking at the ideology of a work of fiction: ‘moral lampshading’. In this video essay, YouTube philosopher Natalie Wynn talks about violence in storytelling and you’ll hear her use the phrase ‘moral lampshading’. Wynn may have created a new phrase to describe that thing where you know what you’re saying sounds (is) morally reprehensible, so you say something morally better in an attempt to balance the scales.

Interior with Lamp 1953, Roy De Maistre. A still life with lamp, fan, reading material and pot plants.

“You can’t fire me, I quit!” is a phrase applied to writing by SF author John Kessel. It describes an attempt to diffuse lack of credibility with hand-waving.

An example: “I would never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.” As if by anticipating the reader’s objections, the author tries to answer problems with their own story which should be fixed up properly.

Handwaving. Distracting the reader with verbal fireworks to keep him from noticing a severe logical flaw. (Stewart Brand)

Watson. A supporting character whose principal purpose is to voice the reader’s confusions and concerns, so that the protagonist is given an opportunity to answer them without resorting to expository lump. “My God, Holmes, you mean the bell-pull was a snake?” (CSFW: David Smith)

Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction
Tom Roberts (1856 – 1931) Twenty Minutes Past Three, 1886. A woman with a gas lamp in a room at night.