Season 2, Episode 2: What is Hanging a Lantern?


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Season 2, Episode 2: What is Hanging a Lantern? Transcript

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

This is Season 2, Episode 2: Hanging a Lantern

Here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from Agnes, who says: I heard this phrase recently, and I’m wondering if you can talk about it. Can you explain what “hanging a lantern” is, and why do it?

I thought this was a really interesting question, because I’ll bet that almost all of us actually do know what hanging a lantern is, but we might not know that’s what it’s called, or have thought about the specifics of how to do it.

There’s nothing worse than finding yourself slowly growing more confused as you read a book – realizing that you’re not sure if you’re meant to know what’s going on, in which case there’s a problem, because you don’t, or whether the author wants you to stick with them, because all will be revealed in good time.

That moment when you feel like there’s something you’re not getting, because you don’t see why a character made a choice, or why something’s happening the way it is – it’s a dangerous one. If you trust you’re in safe hands, then you’re happy to wait and find out. It’s fun, to wait and see it all slowly unfold. Buuuut, if you don’t have that sort of trust, then it’s a reason you might stop reading.

It’s a tricky one for writers, too. On one hand, we do want our readers to know it’s all going to make sense in the end, even if there are things they don’t know right now. The nature of a story is that you learn more as you go – you won’t understand every character’s motivations or decisions at the start. But that said, we do want readers to know they’re not meant to have learned these answers yet. That this is the plan, not just bad writing.

So, how do we reassure them, and show them that they should stick with us? We’re told not to hit readers with info-dumps and explanations early on in the book, because it’s hard to care about those until you care about the characters they affect – and that’s good advice, but it means we need other ways to signal to them about what’s going on.

In related news, writing books is hard.

The answer to this dilemma is that we hang a lantern. This means we shine a light on the unanswered questions they have, making them visible and acknowledging them. It’s our way of saying ‘that’s here on purpose – I know it’s there, and I’m going to do something about it. Stick with me, and all will become clear.’ We hang lanterns for plenty of other reasons, too—but what they all have in common is that they’re used to acknowledge something to the reader.

Today we’re going to talk about three situations where hanging a lantern will help:

Here’s the first, and we’ve already started to cover it. It’s the most basic. You can hang a lantern to tell the reader you’re going to come back to something they’re wondering about later on. If you know the reader is going to be confused, just having the character think ‘huh, that’s weird’ or ‘I thought she said she wasn’t going to be here’ can be enough to reassure them that they’re not meant to know – that this question is a valid one. 

This approach is also really useful for reveals, later on—you don’t want a reader to guess a twist, but you don’t want them to be blindsided either. You want them to feel like they could have seen it coming, but didn’t. So when they look back on that moment when you hung a lantern—and then moved on to something exciting that distracted them, had someone burst in with news, or make a declaration—they’ll curse themselves, but in a good way.

Situation number two – you might hang a lantern to explain a decision that doesn’t otherwise make sense. Your character might choose not to take what seems like an obvious solution or next step, or might do something differently to the way they usually do. You can hang a lantern to let the reader know you didn’t just fail to notice this other option—your character isn’t stupid, there’s a reason.

Some examples of this? If your character isn’t taking what seems like a good option, you can have them tell us why – have them explain their reasoning.

For example, when I wrote Illuminae with Jay Kristoff, we had two characters, Kady and Ezra, on different spaceships. They needed to communicate about the plans they were making to try and save themselves, and everyone else on the fleet.

We didn’t want them to be able to just tell each other everything—otherwise they’d get organized in no time, and it would be a very short story. So as well as throwing in a huge fight over their relationship, we also threw in another limit on their communications.

They were secretly piggy-backing their messages on the back of an official channel, and early on, Kady tells us that if they spend more than a few minutes talking at any one time, they’ll be detected. They’re only getting away with it at all because it’s an emergency situation, and those in charge are desperately short on resources, so they’re not monitoring as they usually would. Still, this means Kady and Ezra are forced to keep it short and sweet, so opportunities for more detailed plans, and reconciliation, are lost.

If you’ve ever been frustrated with a story that seemed like it would all be sorted out if the characters just talked, it might not have been that the author didn’t have a good reason for them to avoid it – it might have been that the author didn’t shine a light on it, to make sure you saw that reason.

Reason number three to hang a lantern: as a wink to the audience when you’re getting away with something. You’re saying ‘I know what I’m doing, this is on purpose.’

Your teenaged character doesn’t know something basic about pop culture? Have someone say that to them: “You don’t get out much, do you?” I’m sure you’ve heard that line before—that was someone hanging a lantern. Now the reader knows it’s not just that you don’t know how to write authentic teens, it’s a deliberate choice you’ve made about this character, for a reason.

Here’s another example of a wink to the audience.

In Unearthed, my co-author Meagan Spooner and I have the characters exploring an abandoned temple, left by a mysterious group of extinct aliens rather ironically called the Undying.  One description goes like this, as the characters try and figure out how to open a locked door:

If this were some summer sci-fi blockbuster the door would go whooshing open at our touch, but apparently the Undying never watched those movies. Or else the batteries are dead.

What are we doing here? Well, it would be strange if these characters—who are from our future here on Earth—had never seen a science fiction movie before. So those are the most natural terms for them to use in describing something that looks just like one.

The wink here is that we’re acknowledging to the reader that this is a story being told as part of a long tradition, which means it has plenty in common with those that have gone before. Rather than pretending we invented these tropes, we’re tipping the hat to them, and having some fun with it. It tells the reader what sort of story we’re writing.

So, there are three reasons to hang a lantern – to promise you’ll come back later with more information, to explain a decision that seems to ignore some options, or to wink at your audience – and of course there are many more.

Here’s an exercise: If you’re a reader, pay attention in the first few chapters of your next read, and see if you can spot one of these techniques. If you’re a writer, think about that one little thing in your draft that you’re hoping nobody will notice, or wonder about. You know the one. I always do in my own work. Think about ways you could hang a lantern on it, and write down a few options.

And that’s it for this week. Next week, I’ll be answering a question about animal companions.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen. Both these things help new readers find the podcast, and I really appreciate it.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, host of one of my favourite podcasts, The Exploress, which time travels through women’s history one era at a time. You can find her at theexploresspodcast.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


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