19 June 2019

It's So Crazy It Might Just... Be Crazy

The author (R) with lampshade.
I have been a fan of The Blacklist through all of its long and somewhat checkered career.  Today I was watching an episode which attempted to explain some of the convoluted conspiracy which is supposedly at the heart of what has gone on for the past six years.

At one point a character said: "That is absurd."

And my reaction was: "Wow.  Nice piece of lampshade-hanging."

I discussed this concept in passing once before.  It refers to a method of coping with a particular authorial dilemma.

Let's say your story involves a plot twist or coincidence so outlandish you are afraid the readers will roll their eyes and throw the book across the room.  That happens.  If you can't change the plot, how can you change the reader's reaction to it?

Well, one method is to "hang a lampshade on it."  This means that, instead of trying to draw attention away from the problem, you actually have a character point it out.  This seems counter-intuitive, but it often works.  Maybe you are indicating to the readers that you know how smart they are.

As the wonderful web site TV Tropes points out, the ol' Bard of Avon could hang a lampshade as neatly as any pulp magazine hack:  Fabian: If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction. (Twelfth Night)

A related method is known as So Crazy It Just Might Work.  Do I have to explain what that means?  You've read it/seen it in a thousand action movies.  It is practically Captain James Kirk's middle name.*

But I would suggest you can divide SCIJMW into two types: Physics and People.  One is better than the other, I think.

Physics: "There's no way the ship's engines can pull us out of the Interplanetary Squid Forest, so let's go full speed ahead straight in! It's so crazy etc."

People: "They have hundreds of armed guards hunting for us everywhere. The one thing they'll never expect us to do is walk up to the prison and sign in as visitors.  It's so crazy etc."

Both are crazy (although not as crazy as an Interplanetary Squid Forest) but the second one seems more reasonable to me because it is based on reverse psychology.  And hey, that sometimes works in real life. Remember the event that was the basis for the movie Argo? Who would expect the CIA to sneak people out of the country by setting them up as a film crew?


Another way of grappling with an improbable plot point is foreshadowing.   I think it was Lawrence Block who pointed out my favorite example of that technique.  In The Dead Zone Stephen King has a lightning rod salesman show up at a bar and try to convince the owner to buy, pointing out the building's location makes it a perfect target for boom.  The owner turns him down and the salesman drives off, his service to literature complete.  When lightning strikes the bar at the very moment the plot requires it the reader, instead of saying "How unlikely!", says "Ha!  The salesman was right!"

 Of course, foreshadowing can be used for different purposes.
In the brilliant TV series I, Claudius there is a scene where a seer witnesses what appears to be an omen.  He interprets it to mean  that young Claudius will grow up to be the rescuer of Rome.  Claudius's sister Livilla scornfully says that she hopes she will be dead before that happens.  Their mother says "Wicked girl!  Go to bed without your supper."  Guess when and how Livilla dies?

So if you are a writer how do you deal with an attacks of the Unlikelies?  And if you are a reader (and I know you all are) which types bother you the most?

* Yes, I know Captain Kirk's middle name is Tiberius.  Now go over there and sit down. 


  1. I like the "it's so crazy it just might work" method, Rob. I think I might have used it once or twice myself :-) .

  2. Interesting piece. Possibly we err in trying for plausibility!

  3. Nice article, Rob. You've got my mind turning and I haven't even had my coffee yet.

  4. I love the "it's so crazy, it might work!" trope. I hate the "deus ex machina" trope - which is why I don't care for most superhero movies. But then, I'm the person who, watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, choked on the humans sword-fighting immortal/dead skeletons. Really? I don't think so.

  5. This was a fun post to read! The strategies you summarize work for me as a reader, because I can accept the implausible as long as it doesn't seem I've outsmarted the author. I want the author to be the "authority." If the author doesn't address that outrageous thing that just happened, or is about to happen, it breaks the fictional dream, taking me out of the story. By admitting it--"OK, I know this is a stretch, but . . ."--the author stays in charge!

  6. Rob, this was fun, and interesting too! I love this kind of thing.

    You mentioned Lawrence Block, who remains one of my favorites. He once said (and I'm paraphrasing, here) that an Army commander pointed and asked one of his soldiers, "If enemy submarines surfaced over there and offloaded fifty troops onto this beach, what would you do?"

    The soldier said, "Sir, I would blow them off the sand with concentrated mortar fire, sir!"

    The commander frowned. "Where would you get the mortars?"

    The soldier said, "Same place you got the submarines."

    Block went on to say that foreshadowing is the art of making the reader believe in not only the submarines but the mortars as well.

  7. Did you invent the term “lampshade-hanging,” Rob? It’s great! Sounds like what I’ve heard jazz musicians day about making a mistake: just keep repeating louder til it seems it’s on purpose!

  8. Thanks for the comments, all. John, Larry BLock's books on writing fiction are an endless supply of wisdom.

    Larry, I got the lampshade term from the TV tropes website. I link to the reference above. It is well worth losing a few hours in.

  9. Hello Rob,

    I enjoyed this. Never heard of hanging a lampshade on it, but I've done it at least once when somebody was trying to explain the improbable events of a story.

  10. I agree, what a great article! Nicely done.

    The problem here in Florida is to try to make real-life events plausible to outsiders. We reach a point of ho-hum dulled senses we say, "So Martians landed in Kissimmee and…?"

  11. "Let's send two basically unarmed hobbits into the depths of Mordor with the Ring that can dominate the world..."

    "It's so crazy it might just work."


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