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Comic Book Dictionary – Hang a Lampshade

Steven Padnick let me know about this term, which is not really a comic book term, per se, but more just a literature term that also applies to comic book writing as well as it applies to any other literary medium (Stephen actually used the alternate term, “hang a lantern”).

It refers to the practice in stories of addressing reader’s questions about the story yourself IN the story. Like if the reader is thinking, “Why didn’t they just do ____?,” have a character say why they didn’t do ____. Or if a reader is thinking, “Boy, that is implausible,” have the character remark, “Man, if I didn’t see that for myself, I doubt I’d believe it actually happened!” Or if a reader is thinking, “This is just like that one time on ____,” have a character remark, “Wow, this is just like that one time on _____.” Essentially, address the person’s “arguments” before they make them.

Probably the most notable example of hanging a lampshade is when characters acknowledge that what is happening to them seems like something that would happen in a TV show/movie/comic, and that’s where the story is actually happening.

It differs in my mind from a “Cousin Larry trick” because hanging a lampshade is an intentional admittance of reader concerns, while a Cousin Larry trick is an after-the-fact attempt to deflect legitimate concern.

28 Comments

I heartily recommend TV Tropes, a website that talks about all this stuff – not just on TV, but also in comics, movies, books and even video games.

Good call, Eric!

That is a neat site.

In the invaluable Turkey City Lexicon, they call this the “You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit.”

Does “hang a lampshade” have the same meaning as the term “hang a lantern” that was mentioned in the comments section of the Cousin Larry Trick entry you linked to?

Yeah, T. I thought I mentioned that “hang a lantern” was an alternate phrasing. Did I forget to do that?

Captain Qwert Jr

February 7, 2008 at 4:52 pm

I’ve heard that phrase used in politics. It’s when a politician points out their own flaws to head off an attack on those flaws. Your definition appears a bit broader.

Oh sorry, looks like you did. I missed that somehow. Never mind.

[…] The Vinyl Underground, in case you are unfamiliar with the book, is about four young adults (each with their own expertises and eccentricities) who solve occult crimes in London. They’re basically an updated take on the Scooby Doo gang (Spencer has hung a lampshade on this comparison a number of times already). At the end of the book’s first arc, the tight trio had expanded to a quartet (working in the lead character’s ex-girlfriend) and the lead, Morrison Shepherd, discovered that his long-lost (and presumed dead) mother might very well be alive and somewhere in London. […]

I’ve heard that phrase used in politics. It’s when a politician points out their own flaws to head off an attack on those flaws. Your definition appears a bit broader.

Yeah, I’m just using it for literature, but it certainly applies to politics as well. Heck, ANY argument, really. It’s a smart way to present an argument.

My favorite use of this is from an episode of Firefly:

Wash: “Telepathy? That’s like something out of science fiction.”
Zoe: “Honey, we live on a spaceship.”

That’s just called proleptic writing, and it’s been around since, what, the times of the Ancient Greeks? Weird to see the current terminology, but that’s what I get for spending so many years at a university.

I’ve heard it used in the negative sense as a “Message From Fred”, when the writer is subconsciously alerting themselves to major plot holes by having the characters themselves notice them.

If a writer uses the characters to comment on an element of the story that they did not write, is it “hanging a lampshade?”
Example: Alan Davis had Excalibur characters go over the events of an Excalibur story he didn’t write (called “Posession” or something similar) and remark how the continuity inconsistencies couldn’t have happened, indicating Merlin or someone was toying with Excalibur.

I’m confused about the terminology.

It sounds like “hanging a lantern” would be a device the author uses to ‘illuminate’ a potential story flaw in order to deal with it and move on.

But to “hang a lampshade” sounds to me like you’d be darkening the metaphoric light that you are trying to shine.

Y’know… like a lampshade.

Am I misunderstanding something?

Is there anything that a link to a website can’t answer?

Thank you, Jebus for the internet!

FF #6 when Mister Fantastic visits the kid in the hospital and explains his costume stretches because it’s made of unstable molecules?

I’ve been calling this the Pirandello Effect, ever since I read this bit by French director Jean-Pierre Melville in “Melville on Melville”, on a scene in Le Samourai:

Rui Nogueira: You make the barman say exactly what the audience is thinking when it sees Jeff going into the bar again.

Melville: That was intentional. One should always undermine that sort of effect. I’ll give you an example. One evening my wife and I went to see an excellent play by Anouilh, La Grotte. A couple of minutes after the play began I turned to Florence and said, “Pirandello!” Just at that moment, an actor on stage said, “I have just heard someone in the audience say “Pirandello!”

Hey, thanks for the link and the shout out!

… and it’s “Steven”

So this is what they’ve been doing on every episode of Lost since the beginning of Season 3?

Is there a sub-term for when characters address reader concerns after the fact, or is that just called a story patch?

What I’m thinking here is Tony Stark explaining the “flesh-colored cast” on Mary Jane’s wrist, and then Peter making a little comment, and then both of them looking at the reader with “Happy now?” expressions, and me wanting to slap the crap out of JMS for all of it.

Senator David Poundcake

February 8, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Doesn’t Eminem do this during the last rap battle in ‘8 Mile’?

IIRC, he’s hanging lampshades all over the muthafuckin’ joint bee-atch!!

Vote Poundcake, kids!

I think we’ve all tried to block out any memories of 8 Mile.

Oops, Steven! What a silly mistake. Corrected!

Just saw Darjeeling Limited and it uses these often for comic effect. Dudes, let’s go on a spiritual journey!

[…] My friend Jim Doom over at Doomkopf always talks about how Brian Michael Bendis is especially good at having characters address the questions and concerns that readers come up with. In case he, or anyone else, is curious, that’s called hanging a lampshade (CBR). […]

[…] Speaking to the everyday life approach, the characters all realize that going to live in a house that has a NAME is creepy, in and of itself (the house is called The Keyhouse), so Hill hangs a lantern on the setup quite nicely. […]

[…] readers of Jasper Fforde, so it is quite intriguing how in this first issue, Cornell does not just hang a lampshade/lantern, he practically shouts out Fforde’s influence, which I thought was […]

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