Alas, taxes are a certainty...
Speaking of taxing something, a while back I mentioned the problem of false drama. It’s when random stuff happens between your characters for no reason. Dot suddenly hates Wakko. Out of nowhere, Yakko is smitten with Phoebe. For motives we can’t understand, Wakko has decided to start arguing with the ninjas. Likewise, I’ve rambled on about motivated action and motivations in general. Stuff don’t “just happen” in a story because there’s a guiding force behind it all--the writer. Even acts of God in a story need to have a purpose.
Things also can’t happen just to fuel the story. That’s the difference between a character’s motivation and the writer’s. Anything in a story that isn’t natural or organic breaks the flow, and one of the worst things a writer can do is give the reader time to sit and think about how ridiculous something in a story is. It taxes their patience and strains suspension of disbelief.
With that being said, sometimes we just need a coincidence or an irrational act. It’s the curse of being a writer. Wakko needs to argue with those ninjas.
Now, I recently got to talk to some of the writers from LOST and an interesting term came up. Every now and then, by nature of their show, the story requires them to put in an odd coincidence or have a character make a very unusual choice. One way they solve this, according to Eddy Kitsis, is by “hanging a lantern on it.”
As the name implies, hanging a lantern on something means drawing attention to it. Not as the writer, but within the story. It’s when something odd or unlikey happens and the characters themselves comment on the oddness or unlikelihood of this.
On LOST, when Sun needs a pregnancy test, she and Kate find one in Sawyer’s stash of scavenged medication and toiletries. And while they’re waiting for the result, they both wonder what kind of person would bring a pregnancy test on an airplane. Really, isn’t that just a bit ridiculous?
In my book, Ex-Heroes, we’re told early on that the Mighty Dragon’s real name is George Bailey. Yes, George Bailey just like in It’s A Wonderful Life. He tells us this himself in a first-person chapter. And then he immediately points out how cruel his parents were and also that he owns the movie and has watched it several times.
So, why does this little trick work?
When the characters themselves immediately acknowledge a choice or action is unusual or ridiculous, it takes the edge off that element for the audience. We can’t forgive the million-to-one coincidence that everyone takes in stride, but we can if the people involve recognize those odds and comment on the unlikeliness of it.
What we wouldn’t forgive is the bizarre coincidence of someone flying with a one-use, specific item like a pregnancy test and everyone ignoring that coincidence. Good characters mirror their audience to some degree, so if the reader thinks this is a bit ridiculous, the characters probably should, too.
Look at Casablanca. It’s got a classic lantern moment. When the film begins, Rick has tried to vanish. He’s gone to another city, in another country, on another continent to escape his previous life, and a few years later the woman who tore out his heart comes walking through the door of his new place. Think about it--the odds of this are astronomical. But we never even consider the odds because Rick himself broods over them in a drunken stupor. “Of all the gin joints in all the world... why did she have to walk into mine?” We accept it because he’s sitting here acknowledging his miserable luck.
Now, does hanging a lantern make a story’s lucky coincidence totally acceptable? Well, not always. What it will do, though, is push back the suspension of disbelief a few notches. By acknowledging this convenient bit of plot or character within the story, the writer’s showing that their characters aren’t stupid, which taxes the reader’s patience. It’s also acknowledging that the reader isn’t stupid, because they just get angry when a writer does that.
So if the coincidence is a small one (say, two guys with the same name also have girlfriends with the same name) and you make a point of commenting on the oddness of it, we as the readers will probably accept it without question. If it’s one of those “you’ve got to be &*%#!ng kidding me!!” type of coincidences... well, you might be able to get it down to a raised eyebrow and a slight eye roll.
It’s also worth keeping in mind, this doesn’t mean you can include dozens and dozens of bizarre coincidences in your screenplay or manuscript and get away with pointing out each one. Like most magic tricks, it’s something you can only do once or thrice before people start to catch on to what you’re really doing. And once they see what you’re doing the illusion’s shattered on a bunch of levels.
Next time around, I’d like to prattle on about that old chestnut, writing what you know, and why fighter pilots don’t always make good writers.
Until then, go write.