Thursday, September 14, 2006

Foreshadow, Forebode, Forestory


I still giggle when I remember the advertisement printed once for a "four stair furnace."

Writers are constantly abjured to be careful of their "backstory" and not let their rear get out of gear.

But what about the foreshowing, foretelling, foresighting?
The hints, premonitions, omens, portents, clues?

It's really just as important to lead the reader on as to fill him in - and while surprise plot twists are devoutly admired, one should avoid those aliens.

I don't mean anything as overt as the meeting with the old man/woman/Buddha on the road.
Or the direct warning label, I-must-hit-the-reader-with-a-2x4-to-make-sure-he-gets-it: "Had I but known..."
Or even the casual mention of the family or local legend/spectre/ curse/talisman/tradition.
Shifting the POV to the antagonist at intervales is another direct technique.

Forecasting is a function that falls under the general heading of suspense, I suppose.
But the best style, in my opinion, operates on a more subtle and almost personal level - where the reader feels the small clues have been inserted just for his discriminating eye and thus develops a rapport with the unseen tale-maker...those odd sounds in the night that the protagonist disregards... Or else the reader pauses for a moment at some crucial point in the narrative, remembers a few innocent-seeming details, and is flattered by the knowledge of his own perspicuity...the expression on a character's face that puzzles the hero, the unexplained absence...

Standard means to achieve this indirect communication with the reader may amount to cliches - but only from the writer's point of view.
Readers may still welcome and appreciate the sign posts as a safe ritual.
Introduce certain facial types or personality types or clothing and we all know those characters are going to get it in the neck before the story is played out - just like the Red Shirts.
Of course, there's Old Faithful - the prophetic dream, the nightmare.
The sun passing behind a cloud, blood-red sunsets and sunrises, a shift in the wind, animal behaviour, are common indicators from the natural world that traditionally trigger the reader's direction finder.
We should try though, to avoid painting the sign-posts - aforementioned - in day-glo neon.

The picture (cropped) is by Edvard Munch.

30 comments:

kmfrontain said...

I love that picture.

I'm all for a good foreshadowing. You get what? Accused of deus ex machina if you don't. Even if you lay a cliché boulder on a reader's doorstep, I think a good foreshadow (and this can mean a nearly invisible boulder designed to roll over toes and wake a person up when it's at last understood) is necessary when writing some sorts of fiction.

Scott said...

Dean Koontz can be pretty obvious with his methods of foreshadowing. Sometimes its a dream. Once it was a splash of red light, that for a brief moment when it shone on his wife, she looked like she was lying dead on the street. Creepy, and you know that something bad is going to happen.

Jaye Wells said...

See it's unfair. In movies they just cue the spooky or sad music and we know something's coming--instant tension.

Flood said...

I just don;t want to read an obscure clue to foreshadowinghtat makes no sense or something really obvious. It's a delicate balance.

Bernita said...

I think so too, Karen, whether boulder, trip wires or whatever.
I've even used a cheap one...having a character say "she disappeared as completely as if she had stepped out of time..."
( now, his my "as" for that one!)

Sometimes those forewarnings are comforting to the reader, Scott. Allows us to get prepared. Suspense is still engaged, because while we suspect "what" we don't know yet the "how."

Bernita said...

One knows right off, Jaye.
All we have is word music.

Think I'd sooner have a direct clue than one too subtle, Flood. Maybe I'm lazy.

MissWrite said...

Foreshadowing is very important. Even small bits of backstory can be helpful in understanding a characters motivation for action. *surprised look* did I say that?

Yes, backstory has its place. Its place is not one big freakin' info dump at the start of the book. LOL

Its place is neatly delivered in digestable tidbits throught the STORY and as part of the story. I despise when authors take a break from the story to deliver a long passage about a characters past. If we haven't gotten that information from the story --the writer failed.

Same thing with foreshadowing. It's even more important than backstory, and equally hard to deliver in a successful way. The best writers have their readers shocked at the foreshadowed event, then going aaaaaaaahhhh yeah, I should have seen that coming, not 'no duh'.

Oh my, I am going on. LOL All done.

Ric said...

When done the best, it's a "Damn, I should have seen that coming" moment. The Sixth Sense movie - all the clues were there, we just didn't see them.

Like missing the clues while reading mystery. I just love it when the author can put the clues in and not make them obvious.

Daisy Dexter Dobbs said...

One of the many joys of reading is discovering how different writers handle situations such as those you mentioned, Bernita. When done well I can’t gobble up the words fast enough. In the hands of a lesser writer, or a bestseller who’s become lazy and too content, I find myself yawning and skipping over vast sections of the novel or groaning and tossing the book aside.

Bernita said...

I repeat, Tami.
Go on as long as you want on this blog.
~ aims a kick at Bonnie's shins~

One could liken it to providing the readers with pieces of a puzzle and hoping they have enough to make a picture at the end.

Gives one a kind of thrill, doesn't it, Ric?
An we want our readers to be thrilled likewise.

Bernita said...

Daisy, sometimes I find myself reading a book twice, because I have been racing just as you mention, then I re-read to savour the other things.

Savannah Jordan said...

I'm a big fan of foreshadowing, if done with a surgeon's knife rather than a butcher's cleaver.

Of course, I'm also one for jerking the rug out--don't let them get too comfortable. HEAs are hell for me to write. Still shock myself that I wrote three in Sacrilegious. ;)

Bernita said...

Um...you still in slice 'n dice mode, Savannah?
The process of foreshadowing usually involves adding in goody bits, not cutting them out...

Savannah Jordan said...

Oh, Bernita, I meant that foreshadowing should be done with delicacy, not a sledgehammer... I guess cutting implements was not the best metaphor. lol I like to have those little hints slipped in, not shoved down my throat. :)

Bernita said...

Assumed you did.
Made me laugh, Savannah!
After reading your snippits... the claws and fangs and knives and sharp pointy things...

Marcail said...

Great post. Right on about the light touch. I like to be guessing right until the a-ha moment when all the subtle clues come together.

Gabriele C. said...

Avoid anything Dan Brown did and you should be on the safe side. :)

Bernita said...

Curious, Marcail, as a reader do you note the bits and wonder as you go along, or is it and "oooh, that's why" at the appointed time?

We have to remember, Gabriele, that Dan Brown did a lot of thing right.

Gabriele C. said...

He did, and that makes you wonder if many readers perhaps prefer foreshadowing so thick you can use it as superglue.

Remember, we are mostly writers here, intent on writing the best books we can, less intent maybe in pleasing the readers who buy according to bestseller lists and Oprah.

Erik Ivan James said...

"Remember, we are mostly writers here, intent on writing the best books we can, less intent maybe in pleasing the readers who buy according to bestseller lists and Oprah."

Ahh, Gabriele, much wisdom and observation in your words, me thinks.

Bernita said...

Certainly, Gabriele, but it is just possible in our determined efforts at perfection, we focus too strongly on what is wrong with individual works and neglect to see what may be right?

Bernita said...

Erik, either we aim to please readers in general, or we are not writing for publication.
Brown had to get to those best seller lists by pleasing many, many readers first.
Something in his writing surmounted the obvious flaws so many hasten to point out.

That "superglue" comment is priceless, Gabriele.

Gabriele C. said...

And what pleases enough readers to push a book on the bestseller lists seems to be the Big Elusive Factor. Some bestsellers are well written with an intersting plot and engaging characters while others suffer from crappy writing, predictable plots, cardboard characters (and sometimes all three).

In case of Dan Brown it's the big religious intrigue and anti-Church elements that probably did it. Harry Potter combines Britsh Boarding school with magic - something I can understand will appeal to kids, and obviously to parents as well. I have never read Stephen King (and I suppose by now it's the name that sells and he could publish a phone book, it would still sell) but what did shove him onto that path? There are other writers who have paranormal/horror elements. Grisham has company and political intrigues, but he isn't the only one. What makes Nora Robert's romances so different from thousands of other romance books on the market? Crichton sold well before I discovered him because I like me some dinosaurs. :)

There is no pattern I can detect. And obviously no one can because otherwise we all would manage to write bestsellers.

Bernita said...

You've summed up the Mystery very well, Gabriele.
It's like the search for the Philosopher's Stone, the Elixir.
thing is there is never a single factor.

MissWrite said...

Gabrielle, In the cases of those you mentioned, I'd suspect largely marketing ability, and good timing. Once you arrive at an equal level of skill, luck becomes a deciding factor, along with abiities beyond the pen and paper.

That's not to say it's not deserved. Only that it's a level apart from the actual writing at that point.

MissWrite said...

Oh geesh... can you tell how long the day's been, and how late it is. One 'l' in Gabriele, and abilities, not abiities. LMAO

Bhaswati said...

the best style, in my opinion, operates on a more subtle and almost personal level - where the reader feels the small clues have been inserted just for his discriminating eye and thus develops a rapport with the unseen tale-maker...

You captured it so brilliantly. Subtle and not day-glo-neon is such a smart way to foreshadow. I think that's also a hallmark of great writers. Those gentle, almost insignificant signposts that still strike you for some reason, only to leave you with "ahh" a little later in the story.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Bhaswati.

Marcail said...

Bernita,
In answer to your question, I am on the lookout for literary devices or clues to the unfolding of the story or the revelation of character. Moreso, as I continue to learn the writing craft and become a more discerning reader.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Marcail, a discerning reader then, not a passive one.