Hang A Lantern on It — More Real Than Real

It is an often repeated truism that reality doesn’t need to make sense.  Fiction doesn’t.

This is true and not.  I found, after years of relentlessly pruning back everything that contradicted the forward thrust of my story, as outlined, that sometimes it’s the bits that stick out that make the other bits shine.

I discovered this when I watched a writer at Milehi read from a scene that was objectively unnecessary for the book.  It was also apparently a favorite of all her readers.  In the middle of this very serious and solemn quest adventure the characters stop off at a not-very-well-appointed tavern, where everything goes wrong and hilarity ensues with serious elf, very serious elf and deadly serious wizard getting accidentally drunk and planning and playing a massive prank involving a dog and a sausage.  (I don’t remember the prank, but nothing bad happened to the dog.)

I watched that reading in awe and went home and wrote what I call “three guys in a car” in Draw One In The Dark.  Tom and Rafiel have been at each other’s throats the whole time, and frankly at that point we don’t think Rafiel is a particularly nice guy. Keith, the were-human, is along for the ride, but he knows he sticks out.

Only in the aftermath of a shifting episode, and fighting the really bad guys, they drive through New Mexico, in a stolen car, with two of them naked (shifting) trying to get clothes and food, before they eat someone. (And not in a fun way) and it becomes a long stretch of prank and counterprank, as their repressed hostility comes out, but also they start on the very early, very tentative way to friendship by laughing together.

Normally I’d have written that scene and deleted it, because it’s objectively unnecessary.  It is not, however, unnecessary “as to feelings” and it helps the characters and the readers bond, because h*ll, the readers know how many times they are silly in the middle of very serious business.

Since then, often still with trepidation, I’ve learned to let such scenes stay in.  Lucius’ first wakening as Good Man in A Few Good Men, in which he finds out there are people who (probably pay to) want to sit around and watch him get up, bathe, etc.  His reaction is hilarious, but also sets up his relationship to Sam Remy as a foster-father, and sets us up for the tone of the society.  Same with the “I’m not sleepy” scene with Simon and Alexis in Through Fire.  It’s funny, it’s scary, and it tells us more about Simon than we’ve learned in four books.

But that’s only one type of scene that sticks out.  Sometimes what sticks out and must absolutely be in there is your character acting against his nature, say, or your world behaving in a way you wouldn’t expect.

I don’t mean you can do this very often.  You can do it at most once or twice.  After that, you’re going to run into “the character was a puppet, with plot up his nether regions, making him move.”  But you usually can do it once per book just as, if you absolutely need it, you can have one coincidence per book.

For both counter-intuitive actions or coincidence, it’s best to hang a lantern on it, rather than sweep it under the rug.  If you try to sweep it under the rug, smart readers will go “She expected me not to see that?” and be insulted.  OTOH if you hang a lantern on it, they go “okay, she knew it was unlikely, but unlikely things do happen.”

So, you know “Of all the worlds in the galaxy, of all the space-ports in this world, how could she have run into the man she’d met as a child, here, in this one?”  Hang a lantern on this.

For more unlikely stuff like, that your miser character is suddenly generous, you can do something like “He’d never given bread to a child, but she reminded him of his little sister, who’d died when he was six, and still innocent of the ways of the world.”

Stuff like that.

This can also be used for stuff that you know is true, but which the reader will think is otherwise, because of books or — shudder — movies that portrayed the event wrong.  Or, of course, when you’re writing in someone else’s world and about to kick their world in the nadders.  I had to do this with Dumas, because in a picaresque adventure it’s perfectly fine to have a stupid character, but in mysteries I couldn’t have Porthos be dumb.  So I made him like my younger kid at the time, a visual/tactile thinker, who had issues with words.  To sell it, I hung a lantern on it.  I explained something like “Many people thought Porthos was a simpleton, but his friends knew better.  Indeed, none of them would be friends with an idiot.  The problem was that Porthos thought through his eyes and through his hands, and words often came lagging and contradictory to his lips.”  I did this at least once per book, but mostly when I was in his head.  Because people “know” Porthos is dumb.

This is harder when you’re countering history people of the time/book couldn’t know.  You often have to do stuff like “People in Europe thought all Africans were alike.  In fact, there were varying degrees of civilization and accomplishment among tribes, sometimes tribes residing very close together.”

Anyway, you get my point.  Now go and hang a lantern on it.

Next week: Making it fly: the trend of your world.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “Hang A Lantern on It — More Real Than Real

  1. Tvtropes, lampshade hanging. 🙂

    In the words of Miss Piggy, “What an incredible coincidence!”

  2. The “whatinth’hellareyoudoinghere?!?” moment, as a friend once called it.

  3. Even Terry Pratchett did that with Carrot. Carrot was simple—but as Pratchett pointed out, “simple” is not the same as “stupid.”

  4. My readers love the small stuff (so they tell me). As a reader, I love the little ’emotional’ scenes that set up the personal stakes later in the book. Authors that do those well have my reader allegiance.

    • aacid14

      In action adventure, you should have a selfish reason for altruistic goals. Yeah, the character is a federal agent, but he’s pissed because the girl that was headbanging to his radio was taken from him. So there is an underlying connection between characters from that small moment. Makes it easier to understand throwing self in front of bullets

  5. mrsizer

    The same thing applies to interior design: If you try (and fail) to hide it, it’s a flaw; if you accent it, it’s a feature.

    The hot-water-heat pipes in our basement are painted safety yellow for that very reason (they’re high enough that only _really_ tall people need to actually see them).

  6. Christopher M. Chupik

    I’d say you’re allowed one big coincidence/convenience per story. Just don’t abuse them.

    • “Coincidences don’t keep on happening.” is how I’ve seen it put as a variant of the “Once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, three times is a trend.”

  7. aacid14

    It’s helpful to remember that life is replete with WTF just happened moments. Usually a character has already had a slew of coincidences to get them to the plot and the idea that at the climatic moment the neighbors decided to dump the garbage out of the overhead window should be somewhat minor. Especially if the character is as shocked as the reader.

  8. I didn’t get to comment on this before; because it’s been ridiculously busy for me.

    Scenes like those might not necessarily ‘advance plot’ but they do advance ‘character building/growth’, IMO. And there’s a point where such scenes especially make the characters very real to the reader.

    My favorite ‘WTF just happened?’ moment involves a frozen turkey landing on, and smashing a vampire to the ground, from what might have been a passing aircraft. In the middle of a battle. (Dresden Files.)