A quick note before I dive in: for the next few weeks I’m only going to be updating my website three times a week. Usually I do my Monday LitLifeLA update, posts on Tuesday and Thursday, then the Nerd Word on Friday, but I’m playing with some things behind the scenes, planning some updates to the blog, and to give myself the time I need I’m going to shift to posting only on Wednesdays for the time being. The LitLifeLA and Nerd Words will continue as always. I’m excited to share what I’m working on, but that has to wait a little while longer…
A Spot of Trouble
As you know, I am also working on the final revisions on my first novel. Well, there’s a small plot hole that has come to my attention. It’s nothing major, but one of my beta readers noticed it (thanks Summer!) and ever since then, I’ve been trying to decide what to do. It’s not a big enough issue that I want to rewrite the whole book to make room for it, but I do feel like I need to address it.
Then, while I was on vacation last month, I was reading “Where’d You Go Bernadette” by Maria Semple, and something caught my attention.
No spoilers, because you really should read it – it’s wonderfully charming and funny – but in a letter from one character to another a mom is complaining about her daughter’s school. It’s not the first time this character has voiced dissatisfaction with the school and a reader MIGHT start to wonder why didn’t they just switch schools.
Hang a Lantern on It
To address the “why don’t they change schools” issue, Semple drops this little gem:
So why didn’t I switch schools? The other good schools I could have sent Bee to…well, to get to them, I’d have to drive past a Buca di Beppo. I hated my life enough without having to drive past a Buca di Beppo four times a day.
And then the story moves on. It’s the only mention of Buca di Beppo in the whole books. That’s all the explanation we get – and it totally works. Brilliant. Semple took something that was a bit of a hole and, instead of revamping with long backstory, she just hung a lantern on it, like: yep, that’s there, moving on.
(Side note: my writing buddies and I often use this phrase, “hang a lantern on it,” and I realized when I sat down to write this that I didn’t actually know how it became a thing. I mean, it seems obvious enough – if you hang a lantern on something, you bring light to it – but a quick google search revealed that it became a common turn of phrase in the 1980s when it was used by Chris Mathews, a former chief of staff to Speaker of the House of Representatives, when he suggested that politicians needed to get ahead of bad press by admitting and defining their problems by “hanging a lantern” on them. The Internet said it, so it must be true.)
Turn a Problem into an Asset
I was thinking about these hanging lanterns when I sat down with the kids to watch “Tangled” the other night. For those of you without children, it’s Disney’s take on the Rapunzel story.
The guy who pulls the long-haired princess from her tower is wanted by the local authorities and there must be eight or nine times in the movie where we’re reminded of this fact by a wanted poster. But the poster bit doesn’t feel repetitive because every time we see one, the dude’s nose is different. It becomes a running gag.
What I realized as I was watching it this time was that the gag completely distracts from the fact that they needed those wanted poster beats in the story, and they would have gotten very boring if the story creators had tried to pretend the repetition wasn’t an issue. Instead, by turning attention toward the posters, they created a story element that works really well. It’s super silly, and emphasizes the character’s vanity.
Finding Somewhere to Hang My Own Lantern
So I’m taking a lantern to my own story. I’m going to read it over again and see if there isn’t some way to hang a lantern on it, to say: “yep, that’s not quite explained in full,” and then move on. I’ll be feeling extra, super cool if I can do it in a way that makes me chuckle.
Have you used this technique? Or have you noticed it in any stories you’ve read recently? I would love to hear of some other examples.