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.