What Does “Hang a Lantern” Mean, and How Do I Use It in My Book?

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photo by Kabilan Subramanian

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.

  1.  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.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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20 Comments

  1. Huh. You’re right, I see this in mystery/suspense/psychological thrillers all the time and didn’t know it had a name. Each time we see it we’re aware of it with a little charge of excitement (wondering if Jimmy’s up to no good or in terrible trouble!).

    There’s so much thought that goes into good fiction and so painfully little in boring or trite fiction, it makes you realize how much depends upon the imagination and skill of the writer in using these devices.

    • So much thought goes into it that I often find myself hitting my head against the computer screen, crying “why, God, why did I decide to write a book?!?!?” It’s like fighting Hydra; as soon as you cut one head (problem) off, two more appear. But despite how much work it is, it is also ridiculously fun.

  2. Wow – that was very informative. Thanks for this great piece. I had never heard of “hang a lantern” but will now be able to spot it and perhaps even use it.

    • I can’t for the life of me remember where I first heard the term. I seem to remember reading a wikipedia article on it years ago, but it’s not there now; most of the Google results for “hang a lantern” are home improvement articles. Anyway, thanks for reading!

  3. The article you might be looking for is called “Lampshade Hanging” on TVTropes.com (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LampshadeHanging). It seems that this technique is often used for comedy in modern shows and stories. Someday I hope to have written enough to use it! ‘-)

  4. What great information. This is the first I have heard of it. I will be keeping an eye out. I may even read a suspense novel but first I need to clear out the dust bunnies under the bed so I can hide. Thank you!

    • Hehe. Dust bunnies. I know what you mean though – it’s amazing how some books can keep you on the edge of your seat, even though you know you’re just reading words on paper, and the characters aren’t real.

  5. Hey BeKind … I like this blog a lot – seems I tend to “hang a lantern” a lot in my musicals … 😉 Now I actually know what I’m doing! 🙂

  6. It’s funny… the day after I read this, my mother, who is serving as one of my reader/editors for a story (she has scary editing ninja-skills) drew my attention to a place in my story where I need to do this. Timing is a funny thing. Thank you, again, for this blog. It is oiling my rusty brain-gears.

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