|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."
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 website 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.
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.