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<   No. 1718   2007-10-10   >

Comic #1718

1 Me: The lampshade effect is a technique used in many forms of fiction to deflect attention from implausible or just plain bad writing.
2 Me: If something unusual happens in a story, the audience tends to fixate on it, ruining their suspension of disbelief and enjoyment of the work.
3 Me: The solution is to "hang a lampshade" on it - have a character point out how strange or unlikely it is. Once acknowledged in-character, the audience accepts it.
4 Me: I'd now like to mention how spectacularly unfunny today's comic is.

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I think I've succeeded in finding a topic that I want to expound upon at some length, but for which there is no reference at all in Wikipedia. For this one, I refer you to the entry on Lampshade Hanging at the TV Tropes wiki.

This is a well-known technique in fiction, primarily film and television, although it finds use in literature too. Sometimes you just have to have something that defies all laws of probability or logic happen in your story, otherwise your plot is lost. Well, good writers seem to manage to do without, but most writers aren't that good. Especially if you're making up the plot as you go. Like, say, a webcomic author.

So you end up with the bizarre event in your story. One that makes the audience say, "What? That would never happen. That's just too strange/weird/improbable/bizarre/impossible." Of course in real life, incredibly improbable things do happen. The point being that when they happen in real life, we make a big deal of them. So if they occur in fiction, and the characters just carry on, blithely treating it as nothing unusual, then it becomes a deal breaker for the unwritten compact between author and audience, that in exchange for believing in the story the audience will be entertained. The belief becomes too difficult.

But there is an easy out. If something improbable happens in a story, all it takes is for a character to notice how improbable it is, and make some sort of appropriate comment to that effect. The audience thinks, "Okay, the characters realise how stupidly bizarre this event is, that's what a normal person would do in that situation, so everything is normal. Yay, I believe in the story again!" In theory, anyway.

It's hard to argue with one so great as William Shakespeare, who used this very trick in Twelfth Night. Act 3, Scene IV sees Malvolio, convinced that Olivia is in love with him because of a deceit played by Maria, Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek (I could not make up better names for these if I tried), in which they forge a letter from her asking Malvolio to engage in certain odd behaviours, engages in said odd behaviours in the presence of Olivia, who then believes Malvolio to be mad and abandons him to the conniving japesters, who then comment on the unlikely turn of events:

SIR TOBY BELCH
Is't possible?
FABIAN
If this were played upon a stage now, I could
condemn it as an improbable fiction.

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