Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Handling Problem Spots

When we write stories, we sometimes come up against plot elements that don’t seem possible. The reader simply won’t believe it. What are we to do?

I came up against a situation like this in For the Love of a Devil. To maintain consistency with the biblical account of Hosea I had to find a way to put the female character in slavery, but we don’t see slavery so much in America. I did the research and yes there is a very active slave trade in the United States, but it stays hidden in the shadows. The events leading up to that just didn’t seem believable. Even though she was already in a bad situation, it didn’t seem possible that the person who did so would sell her into slavery. I stumbled upon a solution that turned out to be much simpler than I would’ve expected and it even has a name.

The plot device that I stumbled upon is called lampshade hanging or spotlighting. When one of my characters was about to tell my main character what had happen, I had her say, “You won’t believe me.” The main character then has to convince her to tell him where his wife is. By the time the character reveals she has been sold into slavery, we are expecting something odd and it doesn’t seem so unbelievable. It was either that or spend several pages explaining modern day slavery in America.

Spotlighting works. It isn’t always clear why it works, but it works. Even Shakespeare made use of it in Twelfth Night when Fabian says, “If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” In my case, I think it raises the reader’s expectations for something very strange and then when the reader looks at it he considers that it really isn’t that unbelievable. Another possible reason is that by highlighting an improbable event, the author is telling the reader, “yes, I agree with you.” The reader then doesn’t have to need to raise the argument and thus be pulled out of the story.

Some spotlighting is very obvious. Television shows often say something like, “it seems like something that would only happen on TV.” This tends to pull the audience out of the show for a brief moment, but the important thing is they keep watching. Yet obvious spotlighting that highlights the problem without creating another unbelievable situation can essentially eliminate the problem, if it is handled well. In either case, the audience will keep reading or watching, which is what we wanted in the first place.


Avily Jerome said...

Or, you know, allegory.

Since she goes back into prostitution, isn't that pretty much a form of slavery in and of itself?

Not that I hang around a lot of pimps, but I understand that they have some pretty slave-like rules, and if their prostitutes don't measure up there are some pretty stiff consequences. In a very real sense, a pimp owns his prostitute.

That's pretty much slavery as far as I can tell.

I see you point about spotlighting, but I think you'd have to be very careful with it to make it work without just being corny.

Timothy Fish said...

You're right, there are places where spotlighting itself can come across as corny, but that's usually in places where what we are spotlighting is so out of place that there's nothing we can do with it. The beauty of it is that spotlighting usually helps in those cases anyway. Think of the Tardis on Doctor Who. It is bigger on the inside than on the outside. It seems out of place in a Science Fiction show until the doctor says something about it, then we just accept it as a fact within the bounds of the show.

Yes, I wouuld say that prostitution is a form of slavery, but in most cases the women involved have a choice, they just don't choose to do what is required to get away from it. In the story, I needed a way to take the character from a situation of her own choosing to one in which she had no choice.

Avily Jerome said...

Never watched Dr. Who.

I'm very, very young... :)