Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lampshading of Tropery

It's been awhile since I talked about tropes, and if I recall my last post was more about the website than anything. For simplicity's sake, I'll redefine the concept here.

A trope is a character type, setting, plot device, dialogue convention, etc that you can reasonably expect readers of a certain genre to already know about by the time they get to your story. I.e. the Anti-Hero, the Hard-Boiled Private Eye, Applied Phlebotinum, Angrish, etc.

The point of today's post, however, is not to discuss the actual tropes themselves. What I want to talk about today is a concept called lampshading.

You lampshade a trope when you call attention to the trope in the context of the story. Let me give you an example from Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards!:

In one scene, Captain Sam Vimes is confronting the villain of the story with the fact that Vimes knows about his nefarious deed. Now, Vimes himself is played as the hard-boiled copper, but the lampshade happens because the scene continues with the palace guards walking in very slowly because they know that a single man who's smiling at them is generally a secretly powerful ninja/warrior/hero who can wipe the floor with ten men without breaking a sweat. Pratchett continues with the lampshade by having the guards actually ask Vimes if he has any secret weapons, knows any moves that will allow him to beat them all up with simply a glare. Vimes says he wouldn't know where to start.

I hope that was a good enough example. If you need ones from television -- try Joss Whedon's body of work. He tends to love lampshading tropes left right and center.

Why am I talking about lampshading tropes? Well, I love tropes (as Stephanie and L.T. will tell you), and a good lampshade tends to make playing with a trope more entertaining, I feel, than playing the trope straight. That said, an unskilled lampshade can smack of an author winking at the audience -- but a skilled one makes the reader trust you the writer even more because you acknowledge the homage of the concept in your story. has a lot of examples of lampshading floating around. I want to hear some from you though ... what are your favorite examples of a writer/television show/movie that lampshades its tropes?


fairyhedgehog said...

Have you any idea how lampshading got its name? It mystifies me.

Matthew Delman said...

I've yet to find any reason why it became called "lampshading," but several other names the practice is known by are "hanging a lantern on it" and "putting a red flag on it."

Joshua McCune said...

I'm not sure about others, but I tend to dislike such things unless they're beyond my perception, in which case, I don't know about them, so they're fine :)

Davin Malasarn said...

This is very interesting, Matthew. I've never worked with tropes, or at least not consciously. I think it requires a lot of research to get good at it and to use these sorts of devices. I admire people who can do it well.

Matthew Delman said...

Davin --

Every writer works with tropes on some level, whether consciously or unconsciously. If you were to troll through, I bet you'd be able to pick out an example or two from your own writing of stuff you've used. Tropes are like money. They're not good or bad. They just are.

Natalie said...

I think I'm must be a little slow today. I still don't really get it. Is it like satire?

Matthew Delman said...

Natalie --

An Anti-Hero is an example of a trope. When you see an anti-hero (Dirty Harry Callahan, for example), you can immediately pinpoint the characteristics that make him an anti-hero.

Another example is the Hard-Boiled Private Eye in mystery stories. If you read enough of those stories, you can find similarities among those characters.

Hopefully that's a better explanation.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I think maybe after I write 10 books, I can be that clever.

Also: using lampshades would engender a certain distance, don't you think? Which could be very effective, depending on the story, but would be difficult, I think, in a first or close third person POV.

Matthew Delman said...

Susan --

It's not all that difficult to have a first-person or close third-person POV refer to them. Merely have the person comment on it.

Example from

In Night Watch there is a really nice example of lampshading. In the second act, the main character, Anton Gorodietsky has been framed for the unlawful killings of a series of Dark magicians. At a certain point, he is running away, being hunted relentlessly by his enemies, when suddenly a car stops, the door opens so he can climb inside, and then drives away at speed. Anton thinks: "Things like this just don't happen! Heroes only get rescued by passing cars in cheap action movies."

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Okay, so the character is AWARE of the lampshading. I think I get it now.


Stephanie Thornton said...

I've never heard of lampshading. Interesting!

L. T. Host said...

Otherwise known as a variety of "breaking the fourth wall". And YAY tropes!

Susan R. Mills said...

I've never heard of lampshading. I suppose I will be watching for it from now on, though.

Adam Heine said...

I can't think of any examples of lampshading that aren't done for humorous purposes. Is it done?

Pratchett sort of makes his career off it. One of my favorite examples (also from Guards! Guards!) is when Colon and Nobbs are trying to shoot a dragon with an arrow. They know it's practically impossible, but they figure if they can make it just hard enough--such that one of them might say, "That's a million to one shot!"--then it's a sure thing. (Because, of course, whenever a protagonist tries something that has a million to one chance of working, it always works).

The end result was one of them blindfolded, hopping on one leg, and smoking a cigarette. They figured the odds of him hitting the dragon had to be a million to one.