Writing Techniques: Use and Abuse of “Lampshading”

From Writers Helping Writers:

What Is the “Lampshade” Technique

Believe it or not, the lampshade/lantern/lampshade-hanging technique is just this: Purposely call attention to a cliché, illogical, or contrived element, often in characters’ dialogue. By calling attention to something that threatens a readers’ suspension of disbelief, we’re essentially telling readers, “Yep, the story world thinks these elements are odd too. Just roll with it.”

The TV Tropes site includes many examples which point out how this technique isn’t new:

Sir Toby Belch: Is’t possible?
Fabian: If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.

— Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

In addition to simply using self-awareness to point out issues, lampshading can sometimes also take the opportunity to answer or justify how the situation makes sense. For example, to defuse readers’ skepticism or criticism of an event, a character might share further information after the fact, such as explaining unknown motivations:

Lampshade: “Yeah, I’m glad we won, but why did Klaus suddenly decide to help us?” Susan threw up her hands. “That makes no sense. He never wanted our team to win.”
Justification: Paula pointed down the field to the opposing team. “See that girl? Cynthia broke up with him last night—ugly scene from what I heard. Maybe he wanted her team to lose more than he didn’t want us to win.”

Depending on circumstances, lampshading can create moments that come off as winking, hilarious, clever (or too-clever-for-its-own-good), meta, lazy, handwaving away weak writing, etc. So we need to understand when lampshading will help or hurt our writing and story.

Lampshading Might Hurt Our Story When…

Lampshading done well helps keep readers immersed in our story, but lampshading done poorly risks pulling readers out of our story even more than if we had just left our writing alone.

Situations where lampshading can hurt our story or writing include:

  • Our story’s style is serious or sincere, so even mild or well-done lampshading risks a tonal change of being too-clever, meta, or jokey.
  • Our story’s narrative is strong and/or readers of our genre won’t question the plot tropes/clichés, so lampshading risks an impression of “apologizing” for lines or elements that readers may not even notice if we don’t point them out.
  • The questionable elements are part of a strong emotional moment in our story, so lampshading risks undercutting—or at least interrupting—the emotions we wanted to evoke (such as in the game-winning example above).
  • Our story naturally keeps readers at a distance—less engaged or immersed—so any lampshading, especially meta, fourth-wall-breaking, or too-clever-by-half moments (unless, of course, that’s the kind of story we’re trying to tell), risks preventing readers from taking anything seriously (e.g., if our characters don’t seem fully invested and care about the story’s events, readers might not care either).
  • The questionable elements are part of a major or important moment in our story, so lampshading, with its “don’t worry about it” and “just roll with it” attitude, risks giving readers the impression that the moment isn’t important.
  • There’s no story at all without the questionable elements, so lampshading that emphasizes the issue can make the entire story feel weak or “fake.”
  • Our characters’ reactions are believable within the story world, so lampshading risks an impression that we aren’t confident in our writing, worldbuilding, or characters.

Most importantly, as alluded to in that last bullet point, we don’t want to lampshade something simply because we’re not confident in our writing. Once per story, we might need to move the plot along with a contrived situation that we’re not entirely happy about, and maybe that event could use a lampshade, just to keep things moving. But lampshading due to self-consciousness can feel defensive, like we’re trying to avoid any-and-all criticism or essentially apologizing for our work. Instead, we should fix the problem so we can feel at least somewhat confident in our writing.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers