To hang a lantern (or “hang a lamp”) is to call attention to an inconsistency in the story by having a character notice the inconsistency. It’s the writer’s way of telling the reader “I did this on purpose; it’s not a mistake.”
Detective stories are rife with lanterns;
“That’s weird; blank doesn’t usually blank.”
“Oh, it’s probably just because of blank.”
Little did they know, it was actually blank!
There are three reasons to hang a lantern. We’ll use a sample story so we can explore each one.
The inconsistency: Jimmy is not at the Laundromat this Saturday morning – but it’s already been established that Jimmy goes to the Laundromat every Saturday morning. The lantern: Sarah notices Jimmy is not there.
- To create intrigue by pointing out clues
Sarah was at the Laundromat until noon, but there was no sign of Jimmy. Odd.
2. To surprise the reader by cluing him in without him knowing it
Sarah scanned the room as she made her way to an idle washing machine, then tried to hide her disappointment when she realized that Jimmy wasn’t there. Of course; he’d mentioned that he might have to work today. She just hadn’t realized, until now, how much she had been looking forward to seeing his crooked grin as he wished her happy birthday. [Sarah returns home later only to discover that Jimmy has planned a surprise party]
3. To explain away a plot inconsistency
Sarah’s mind wandered as she watched her socks tumble round and round in the drier. Jimmy had had to work today – some hot project that couldn’t wait until Monday – so she was alone with her thoughts.
In the first example, there’s no explanation for Jimmy’s absence; Sarah simply wonders where he is, which makes us suspect something fishy is going on.
In the second example, Sarah dismisses his absence as nothing particularly out of the ordinary, but focuses on how much she misses him. The writer tricks us into thinking this scene exists only to establish Sarah’s growing feelings for Jimmy – so we are pleasantly surprised when we discover that Jimmy’s absence was actually a sign of his feelings for Sarah.
In the third example, the writer just wanted to give Sarah some time to think, so got Jimmy out of the way for a while with a simple excuse. The parenthetical statement acknowledges that he doesn’t usually work on Saturdays, but offers a plausible explanation for an exception to the rule. This both explains away the inconsistency and lets us know that it’s not important to the plot.
Lanterns are also useful in trilogies and series. Say you leave a plot question unanswered in book one, because you plan to reveal all in book two – but in the meantime, you don’t want your readers to accuse you of overlooking it. Hang a lantern on it; have a character ask himself (or another character) that question, then leave it. Your readers will simply expect the answer in the next book.