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Lamp(shade) Stack

So, I learned a new writing cliche today.  Sort of.  It's one that I used, just never quite realized the terror associated with it.

It's referred to as a "lampshade".  It's where characters in a story intentionally point out how something is so ludicrous, they can't believe it is really happening.  The implication being that the writers are acknowledging to the audience that they are reeeeeeeeeally stretching things to keep the plot moving and believable.  It gets parodied all the time by Mel Brooks, the Zucker Brothers, Kevin Smith in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back ("A Jay and Silent Bob movie?  Who'd pay to see that?"  And then all three characters look at the camera and play to the audience), Koshi Rikdo (constantly employed in the hilariously classic Excel Saga), and the Austin Powers movies ("Why don't you just kill him?!?").

More serious examples?

Die Hard 2, where John McClane repeated expressed disbelief that he's in this situation again.

One of my favorite anime, CardCaptor Sakura, where Tomoya points out Li's jealousy over the (unknown to everyone) reincarnated Clow Reed "is like something out of a girl's manga".

The entire storyline of "Fall In Love Like A Comic" hinges on this.

Peter David's classic "Rick Jones escapes from an exploding flying saucer with a parachute he just happens to keep on him" bit.

Brigadier Stewart in Doctor Who, commenting he would just once like to meet an alien that wasn't impervious to bullets (well, technically, he has.  The Doctor.  Remember the switch from Sylvester McCoy to Paul McGann?).

The vast majority of Mark Millar's projects.

Simply put, it's a reaction to a situation that makes no fucking sense, but the characters do it anyway to advance the plot and the results are usually benign or beneficial, and it is called attention to.

Peter David, in one of his columns ruminating on writing, said it was a wink to the audience, a sort of "Yeah, I know I'm not fooling you, but let's not let that get in the way of the rest of the story."

Okay, so here's the question:  when is a lampshade a lampshade, and when is it simply the characters' logical reaction?

I did this in the first two issues of Sound Waves.  In the first issue, Rhapsody asks Melody, "Do you really think my dad will believe I found the ring in an oyster?", and Melody responds, "Do you really think he'll believe a mermaid found it instead?"  In the second issue, Melody explains how singing enables mermaids to swim without drowning.  Rhapsody comments, "That sounds a little farfetched."  Melody responds, "You mean, compared to mermaids?"

For me, it was because these elements that were crucial to the mechanics of the series not only don't withstand logical scrutiny, but nothing could.  If mermaids are half human as legends say, it would be easy to spot where they live.  They would be relatively close to the surface of the water, it does get darker the further down you go (another thing I sidestep in the series using the "harmonizing with water" conceit).  Melody smells the bad perfume on Rhapsody at the start of the Christmas special.  Rhapsody sighs.  They talk and sing.  This involves moving air past the vocal chords.  Where is their oxygen coming from?

The reason I made Sound Waves 16 pages per installment is to enable me to barrel past those tricky inconsistencies.  Sort of like Tom And Jerry.  You don't need much background, you get the gist of the characters almost immediately (the cat wants to catch the mouse, the mouse wants to survive).  The actual logistics for living as a mermaid is not my focus and will actually distract from the stories, which are about exploration and friendship.  The whole "sound waves" thing is the elephant in the room, and I'm trying to keep the audience from noticing.

So, was what I did in the first two issues a lampshade, or was that genuinely how the characters react?  I mean, Rhapsody and Melody are not only intelligent, but I intentionally put a little snark between them.  I think it's important to have the characters occasionally disagree, clash, or just razz each other as friends because I think it makes them look less like reflections of each other, the same character duplicated just to give the main character someone to talk to.

So what is the dividing line?  At what point are you sharing a laugh with the audience or trying to power through your set-up, and at what point is it a cheap cliche and cop-out?

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 2nd, 2010 07:20 am (UTC)
Honestly, I couldn't begin to say where the dividing line is. I'm okay with them both, though -- in fact, I've always loved a little winking at the audience.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 11:17 am (UTC)
Maybe my question is less about the dividing line (after all, most any cliche can be used skillfully) and more about, "When are you simply doing something fun or forgivable or logical for the characeters" and "When are you abusing the privilege?" Peter David's parachute gag, for example, was not only hilarious, but based on the character he did it with, perfectly logical. Rick Jones has spent so much time with superheroes and seen so many adventures, if ANYONE would have a parachute with him just in case he had to jump from an exploding air craft, it would be him. I don't care if it's a cliche, the payoff was pure gold.

It's kind of like how movies initially sprinkled pop culture references in them like in Scream. Suddenly, everybody started doing it, and instead of it being something to amuse the audience, it became the filmmakers' "Hey! Look how cool we are! We watch this show or listen to this band or saw this movie just like you!"

I'm just trying to make sure what I do stays as a cute little wink or a device to keep things moving, not laziness. "Yeah, I wrote myself into a corner, and I can't be bothered to figure out a better way." Know what I mean?
Jun. 3rd, 2010 07:13 am (UTC)
I suppose overall it would indeed depend on the whole tone of the show to begin with, and whether the gag fits in with the show in general. Something that works perfectly on Scream would be totally inappropriate for Halloween, for instance.

And, yep, I know just what you mean -- I'm sure you'll handle it just fine, but it might all end up being in the mind of the reader!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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