Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Foreshadowing with a brick

Foreshadowing. It's part of your dance with the reader, a kind of flirtation, like showing a bit of ankle to keep them hoping that a lot more will be revealed if they stick around. It's a promise to the reader: something really good is coming up! It's a way to tease the reader: bet you can't guess why soandso is suddenly doing suchandsuch! It's a way of making the implausible events of a story plausible: the protagonist who suddenly escapes a bad situation by climbing a sheer cliff will get a book walled, while the protagonist who used to be a climber until she lost her nerve after a bad fall will be much more believable. Not only are you expecting her to encounter that cliff, you'll be rooting for her to conquer her fears and do what you've already been convinced is within her abilities.

Of course, that last example works best if you can bring in her climbing history without slapping a big fat THIS IS GONNA BE IMPORTANT label on it. Maybe you show it in bits. She's excessively uncomfortable, to the point where it seems out of character, about visiting the rotating restaurant on top of a skyscraper. A "surprise" date where somebody takes her to a rock climbing gym does not go well. It doesn't take much; the object is to drop hints subtle enough that they won't appear as big red flags to the reader, but will give them an "Aha!" moment when the only way she can rescue herself and her friends is by going up that cliff.

Foreshadowing ploys change over time, and it's a good idea to be sufficiently familiar with current work in your genre to recognize what's being done - and overdone. In the seventies you could identify a Gothic romance by (1) the cover (blue tones, dark tower, girl in a negligee fleeing the dark tower) and (2) the near-certainty that at some point the heroine would say, "Had I but known...." Writers of Gothics may have destroyed HIBK as a foreshadowing device for all time.

What's inspired me to think about the virtues of subtlety and restraint in foreshadowing? I recently read a thriller by a writer who is infinitely more successful than I am, so how dare I criticize anything he's written? Well... this book starts with a tiger heist, the details of which are a lot of fun to read. Scenes with the bad guys throughout the book establish that they quickly kill one of their two tigers for body parts but keep the other one alive, presumably so its parts will still be "fresh" when they get around to it.

So... by the time this tiger has been kept alive and in captivity for 80% of the book, you KNOW it's going to eat somebody. And by the time it does get loose and chow down on a villain, you're not shocked. You're not surprised. You're more like, "So what took you so long?"

And I consider that a waste of a perfectly good tiger.

1 comment:

  1. Your take on this definitely amuses me, because I am very much the same. I tire of books that are too obvious as to where things are going. I like to be kept guessing and have enough clues given so that I can. I don't mind being wrong, as long as the author doesn't go totally off the rails with something that you not only didn't see coming but that makes no sense given what you have read prior. I guess I've always considered authors that write like your tiger one not very good or clever or experienced. The masters foreshadow in the most clever ways and make the reading experience worth the immersion.


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