Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday's Focus: Foreshadowing: Do You Use It?

A hint of what is to come. That's another way of saying "foreshadowing." As writers, we know how important 'detail' is to our stories. But one detail is not the same as another detail. We have to be selective in what we say and how we say it. If we give importance to some small detail in our story, and then go on without ever going back to that detail, we are in trouble and our story is going to cause some definite unrest among our readers.

A favorite author of mine, Sandy Asher, once said, "If a character coughs in Act I, he'd better die of consumption by Act III." Why? Because if you give some kind of importance to a detail at one point in the story, and then never go back to it, never explain why it was important at that particular point, the reader is going to feel cheated. The detail will stick in his mind, and then leaving him wondering "why" is not going to win points and make friends. Or future readers.

Have you ever heard of the literary principal "Chekhov's Gun?" Chekhov was a Russian author who once said, "One must never put a loaded rifle on stage if no one is thinking of firing it." That suggests this scenario: Your MC and her boyfriend spend the weekend in a cabin out in the woods, trying to repair their relationship. As they come in, the boyfriend sees a rifle hanging above the fireplace. He stares at it for a moment, before turning back to the MC.

That is foreshadowing. it is a hint of what is to come. Or should be a hint of what is to come. If you as the writer allow his eyes to dwell on the rifle, but the weekend goes well and the two come home, more in love than ever, that is a wasted moment, a wasted detail that the reader is going to ask, "What was THAT all about?"

But: think about this: the boyfriend is unreasonably jealous, and the girl is tired of it. The weekend does not go well, and they continually fight. Finally, the boyfriend slams out of the cabin, gets in his car and drives off, leaving the girl behind...lying on the floor, bleeding. Then the rifle has become an important part of the story, and the small detail of the boy's eyes dwelling on that hanging rifle has meaning.

When you write about the details of a character or to give insight into the plot, you need to have some idea of why you are writing this. What is the importance of that detail? Is it going to have some kind of meaning later on in the story? Those details are going to stick in a discerning reader's mind, and make him ask, Where is this going? What's going to happen with that? If you don't follow through, and make those details have some kind of result in the plot or with the character, you are just leading your reader on for no good reason.

On the other hand...don't ever use phrases like "Little did she know what tomorrow would bring" or "They thought they were alone. They were wrong." These are "cliff-hangers", usually used at the end of a chapter to entice the reader to go on. ( Incidentally, the last phrase...they thought they were mine, from my current WIP, that, after reading through it, I had to go back and change.) But these phrases and many other like this, are "author-intrusive," meaning that it's only the author acting as the narrator who puts them there.  These phrases don't come from the character's POV, they come out of nowhere and do nothing but irritate the reader.

Foreshadowing is a great literary device, if it is used correctly. However, sometimes we use something that we think is foreshadowing, and it's not. For example, in my story, at the end of one chapter I used the "they thought they were alone. They were wrong." phrases as foreshadowing what came next. But as I started to think about it, I knew I had used those two sentences incorrectly. I went back and deleted them. So you know what I'm talking about, my MC and another character were racing through the woods, trying to avoid the police. They were being observed by another character but didn't know it. So I changed those two sentences to: Above them, the whirring of wings was unheard over the noise of their crashing through the underbrush.

That foreshadows what happens to them in the next chapter, even though it doesn't come until late in the chapter. At least, here the reader has an idea of something that is going to happen, because in previous chapters, this same character with wings has appeared.

The point is: we all give details about the plot, the characters, even the setting. Sometimes in narration, sometimes in dialogue. Write those details in well-chosen words that will give a hint of something to come, words that will create suspense, or that will give the reader information about the character that might not appear again until late in the story. Remember that the purpose of foreshadowing is to make the incidents or events that appear later on in the story meaningful and plausible. You don't want your reader to finish your book, and then feel like some important part of the story was ignored or left unfinished. Plant those foreshadowing details carefully, think them through first, and know where they are going to lead and how you are going to deal with them. Then you can be assured that your readers are going to be fully satisfied with your novel.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.