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September 12, 2023

How to Point Readers’ Attention in the Right Direction

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m exploring a lesser-known writing technique that can be used to help or hurt our story. Let’s dig into when and how we might want to use the “Lampshading” Technique

What Is the Lampshading Technique?

One of the best things we can do to improve our work is make sure that we’re writing with purpose and awareness. That means we’re not just grasping at the first or the easiest ideas, we’re not being lazy with our writing, and we’re not using clichés or tropes simply because we can’t be bothered to think of a better approach.

What does it mean to "lampshade" our writing, and how do we do it? Click To Tweet

When we write with intent, if we include a cliché, trope, stereotype, etc., it’s because that’s what makes sense for the characters and/or story we’re trying to tell. However, if readers haven’t learned to trust us or our storytelling yet, they might not give us the benefit of the doubt when it comes to writing that looks lazy.

That’s where the lampshading technique (also called “hanging a lantern/lampshade”) comes in. We can overcome the reader’s impression by calling attention to the questionable element, letting them know we wrote it on purpose, essentially telling them: We know what this looks like, but trust us, it’s there for a reason.

4 Methods of Lampshading an Element

Not everyone is familiar with the lampshading technique or understands all its applications. Most articles tend to focus on a single aspect of it: using it for humor. However, it’s a far more flexible and useful technique than claimed by several disparaging blog posts out there that advise us to avoid it altogether.

In general, we’d lampshade a line, plot event, or element of our story that might pull readers out from their immersion, due to plot holes, implausibility, coincidences, illogic, etc. The lampshade attempts to keep readers in the story by getting them to trust our storytelling and/or writing ability, regardless of their first impressions.

The methods we might use to get readers to trust us fall into several categories, so let’s break down those categories — going from “usually more explicitly lampshaded” to “usually more subtly lampshaded” — and the reasons for when and why we might lampshade an element in our writing…

Category #1: Humor

First off is the most common method of using lampshading—making readers feel like we’re all in on the joke of the writing looking (or even being) lazy. In this case, lampshading asks readers to roll with the imperfections by making the problems part of the story’s charm.

This method uses lampshading to say, in a humorously arrogant way: “Trust me! See what I did there? I meant to do that!”

Here are a few examples of attempting to turn issues into a joke (whether the attempt works depends on the story’s style and tone, as well as the author’s skill):

Category #2: Meta Self-Awareness:

The second most common method of using lampshading creates a less-jokey moment than the “Humor” category, but still a wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment of meta self-awareness. In novels, this is often seen in moments that anticipate readers’ recognition of a genre trope or cliché and point it out first—putting characters into the same position as readers when it comes to being familiar with the genre and its tropes.

This method uses lampshading to say, in a sly, winking way: “Trust me! We both know what that looks like, but it’s all good.”

Here are a few examples where the characters are somewhat familiar with the tropes and comment on the situation in that light:

Category #3: Handwaved Explanation:

Another common method of using lampshading is to ensure readers know the explanation we have in mind for a questionable issue. If there’s no good way to slide a justification or motivation into our story, we might use a lampshaded moment to force the explanation—reassuring readers that the illogic they think they see doesn’t exist.

What are the 4 reasons and methods for lampshading an element in our story? Click To Tweet

This method is especially helpful with plot coincidences, which are fairly easy to justify, but is also frequently used with missing motivations. The approach we use with this method can be similar to the other categories — like Meta’s anticipation of reader reactions and having characters react the same way first, or Humor’s setup/payoff technique — but its goal is to answer the questionable element sincerely rather than with a joke.

However, given the serious-and-sincere approach, this method can be very difficult to do well. The more serious we’re trying to be, the more subtle the lampshading needs to be, or else the explanation will feel shoehorned into the story and/or interrupt the scene’s emotions. Our success will depend on our writing skill, how big the problem is, how convincing our explanation is, the emotional aspects of the moment, etc.

This method uses lampshading to say, in a quiet-but-sneaky way: “Trust me…I have a plan.”

Here are a few sincere examples of attempting to handwave away issues:

Category #4: Guide Reader Reaction:

The least understood, but potentially most useful, method of using lampshading is to steer reader reactions in the direction we want them to go. Obviously, every one of these methods directs readers’ in some way, such as to a certain emotional response like laughter, amusement, or appreciation for cleverness.

However, rather than attempting to evoke a certain emotion like humor, this method is about ensuring readers’ thoughts don’t follow paths we want them to avoid—and instead encouraging readers along the thought (and emotion) path we want them to go.

Think of how we might want to bury a clue in the subtext, or how readers might get distracted by something that seems like an issue unless we reveal how it’s not. In these cases, we can lampshade an oddity without spelling out the clue, or we can share how something isn’t an oddity at all.

Like the previous method, this category usually requires more subtlety than the joking, winking methods. Done well, readers won’t even notice this method at all (which is probably why it’s the least-known method).

This method uses lampshading to get readers to look over here instead of over there: “Trust me, this is what’s important.”

Here are a few examples of using lampshading to guide readers’ reactions:

  • A character notices an inconsistency (giving a clue hint) but story events steer attention elsewhere right away (preventing the character—or reader—from thinking on it too deeply). (Wasn’t Joe supposed to be here? Odd. “Hey, can you give me a hand with this?”)
  • A character recognizes that they’re behaving inconsistently but doesn’t know why yet, as just like with us, characters don’t always fully understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. (Ugh. How could she be so stupid? Why did she care what Joe thought? *later realizes she’s in love with him*)
  • A character notices an inconsistency (especially something that seems like a plot hole), which hints to readers that—just like the character—they don’t have all the pieces yet. (The goal here is to ensure that readers aren’t spending mental energy on this non-existent plot hole, and encouraging them to instead sit back and enjoy the journey of the story.)
  • The story explains why the characters aren’t just… whatever readers would question and thus get distracted by (communicating with each other, avoiding where they last saw the serial killer, etc.). (In general, any time readers would question “why don’t they just…?”, consider lampshading the issue to avoid reader distraction and/or an impression of weak writing.)

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

Writing Techniques: Use and Abuse of “Lampshading”

Now let’s visit my guest post at WHW, linked above, where I’m sharing more about this topic, including:

  • how the lampshade technique is part of literary history
  • the risks of lampshading done poorly
  • 7 situations when lampshading could hurt our story
  • why lampshading can look defensive
  • 9 ways to ensure we’re using lampshading well
  • the benefits of lampshading to our story (and our readers)

As with any writing technique, we need to find the right balance for our story and its style and tone. Many complaints about lampshading are due to a story overusing it, or relying on it to cover up bad writing, or using it to undercut sincerity or emotion to avoid the criticism of melodrama, etc.

Again, the goal is always to increase readers’ trust in our storytelling and writing. Using it as a crutch, a cover-up, or to avoid criticism doesn’t meet that goal of increasing readers’ trust. But lampshading can be done well and fit our story—and often not even be noticed by readers.

By focusing on using it when it will increase our readers’ trust, we’ll know when it’s a good idea or not. With the tips here and on my guest post, we’ll hopefully have a better idea about how to use the lampshade technique in ways that will help, and not hurt, our story. *smile*

Have you ever used the lampshade technique? Did you struggle with how to use it well? Can you think of any examples of lampshading done well? Or done poorly? Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

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Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I wrote a rather involved story some time ago, using two different groups of people, alternating their experiences along the same timline. Without this alternating, no one would have accepted the ‘coincidences’ that occurred to eventually bring the two groups together. In fact, at one point, one character (who has been sceptical of many things along the way) says to another, “you realize the kind of Rube Goldberg scenario you’re talking about? There is just no way!” But, because of alternating and making sure that each “episode” made fairly realistic sense by itself, it worked. At least, according to the readers who contacted me. Am I correct that this was a form of lampshading?

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