Monday, October 18, 2010

Dum... da da da dum

Dum... Da da da dum...
Something wicked this way comes. Probably bouncing through the quivering forest.

I've warned you.
I've told you.
Do you think anyone of you were listening?
You call me a troublemaker. You babble-on, Babylon. Go on with your dream projects, running ever faster.
Building up. Building up and up.
There's a shadow in the doorway. It's not just one of my pranks.
And you're still all talking busily. Flying by the seat of your pants... or building by them. Which means you'll never see disaster coming your way.
Pansters! Huh.
Wake up and smell the scent of decay wafting up through the lower stories. You need to monkey about with it.
Because otherwise the next page will not be quite what your audience expected.
And it should be.
But only in retrospect.
Or it will fall...

I've talked about apeing other genres before. I've also talked about expectations and managing them. I've been writing these pieces for a while and so I've even probably talked about the mechanics of humor (just what is it that makes people laugh). Now I want to talk about something that draws on all three of those: the art of foreshadowing.

It's is probably the core skill required to write good murder-mysteries, and plays quite well in suspense of any kind. It can of course lift your fantasy or sf beyond the ordinary. It's far from easy to do well, and often requires a fair degree of sleight of hand. The key to having done it well, is that the reader DOESN'T see it coming. He sees something coming (IE. his expectations are being managed). However, when the incident happens... a head-palm-slap moment, as the reader says "OF COURSE! Why on earth didn't I see _that_ coming? Of course he was the villain / hero / lost heir, etc."

It was something I tried to do with Cap in THE FORLORN. He was a major character. Their leader. And they were undoubtedly a heroic group. Only I slowly tried to build up that Cap was a self-centered (cough)... and a few other little hints. So: hopefully when the denouement happend... it seemed plausible. In plain sight, given a slightly different interpretation of the story shown.

That's a major example woven into the full length of a novel, which I basically had to know from page 1. It's something I use almost constantly, however, at greater or lesser level, so that we change circumstances without there being a feeling of ‘oh this was getting boring so I decided to make the roof fall in.' That, sadly, is something which is all to common in pantser writing. Now, there are some great pantser writers. Some of them even do short-term foreshadow. And there are even those who long-term foreshadow. That means either their trousers have co-operated and led them instinctively to a great WHY DIDN'T I SEE THAT COMING or that they've edited their work and realized that the finale needed foreshadowing and gone back and systematically done the lead in to it (or that the ‘pantser' part merely applied to detail, and they knew where they were going throughout - ergo they had broad plot, not a detailed one).

I am of course always a plotter, although I sometimes end up as the last example of pantser too. I frequently end up going back and titivating my foreshadowing. To titillate without betraying, if you keep abreast of my reasoning. It's a ticklish thing to do -- because, like humor, it involves getting the reader to see both things but expect the wrong one. (Laughter is actually something of a reaction to shock, it turns out.) The classic example of how it works is Charlie Chaplin walking along the road. There is an open manhole cover, in a littered street. The hole gapes. Gets bigger in every frame. Naturally so does the street and the litter. We see the detail of it, the junk, the cigarette butts, the banana peels, the empty bottles - and the hole. The hole getting bigger and more obviously in the way of the oblivious walker. We see the walker, the hole (and its surrounds, but it is the hole we focus on ) and....

He steps over the hole.

And onto the banana peel (which has been in plain view in every frame).

It's been said that foreshadowing works best if repeated 3 times.
This is good advice... if you are not your average sledge-hammer wielding writer. Remember the banana peel was in frame... but not the center of attention. Peripheral, but large enough and clear enough to be remembered. One way to do this is to make it memorable... for the wrong reason.

For instance here (from A MANKIND WITCH)

"The poor girl. I feel so sorry for her. She's stunted, you know. They say..." and the honeyed voice of Signy's stepmother dropped, but not so low that it couldn't be heard clearly through the thin wooden wall. "It's the dokkalfar blood on her mother's side... The woman died in bearing the girl. That's a sure sign of the ill-fortune that goes with meddling in seid-magic. And only the one scrawny girl-child, Jarl. Anyway, it is not important. She is of the royal line even if she probably will never bear children. She's far too small. She spoils her complexion with sunlight. And she has no womanly skills. I mean, look at her embroidery! It's appalling. No, your master would be wise to look elsewhere."
Signy's nails dug into her palms. She dropped the frame of crooked stitchery that confirmed the truth about her skills with a needle. She knew perfectly well that she had been supposed to hear every word. That it was meant to wound. That didn't stop it hurting. The Dowager Queen Albruna seldom missed the opportunity to try and belittle her... And seldom failed to do so. It wasn't hard. Signy knew that she was no one's idea of a shield-maiden. She was too small, too wiry, and as gifted with 'womanly' skills of fine weaving and stitchery as a boar-pig. She couldn't even see her threads in linen-work, let alone do it. But, by Freya's paps, she'd sooner die than let the queen-mother see any sign of how her barbs stung.


There are several piece of foreshadowing there -- but the spite about the embroidery is key to the entire story -- because Signy is long-sighted. And this is the foundation on which the story rests.

Other ways to hide things are in other senses. I'm too lazy to go and look up the examples, but I did this several times with my alien hero in SLOW TRAIN. What he was smelling - or hearing was plot-relevant. The reader (I hope) was taken by the vividness of the imagery from an alien viewpoint, without realizing I was cueing them in.

And it doesn't always have to be important. You can thread your re-enforcing of foreshadowing into scenery, or into the speech tags.


"Can't I stop and rest for a while, Prince Vlad?" whined the Boyar.
"We'll rest when we're there," said Vlad, wishing for the tenth time, at least, that he hadn't agreed to take the man along. The rest of this troop were his best men. Yes, some were poachers, ex-bandits and rogues. They were his forward scouts. The rest were good shots and the steadiest men he had. He'd had Emil and Mirko pick them out, and then let his feeling govern the selected ones. He was getting better at trusting those feelings.
"Where are we going?"
It was not a question Vlad wanted to answer. Not after his experiences in Gara. "A little ambush," was all that he said.
"We're a long way out of the high mountains," said the Boyar, who seemed to assume he was at liberty to interrupt Vlad's thoughts at will, and speak to him without the respect Vlad had come to take for granted. He tried to make his volunteer armies more comfortable, confident enough to address their Prince... until of course he found someone like this who took it all too far.

There is more information contained in the speech tags and Vlad's thoughts - and attitudes - than there is in the dialogue.

And thus, we build up. We re-enforce our paper (or electron)tower and mason over all those cracks of confusion. And we can still assault heaven, or at least the heights of our profession, because Hanuman told us to use steel rods and brickforce so the edifice can stand. (And who saw this bit coming?)
The demons hate him. Of course you all know who the demons are, don't you?;-)
Ok - your thoughts on foreshadowing?
Many of you are self-confessed pantsers. How do you do it?


Scott said...

I'm a pantser and a lot of he time I surprise myself with my own foreshadowing. In my current 3 book series (2 books all but written) the ending is set up at the start of book 2-- but i didn't realise until I got to the final confrontation. (The confrontation used to be at the end of book 2-- I thought I was finished for a while).

I do go back to add stuff and also do a bit of shorter term foreshadowing but I think I must know a lot more about tho story subconsciously than I realise.

Dave Freer said...

Scott, I suspect that is the case with a lot of the better pantsers - they don't realise just how well developed it is in their heads.

David Barron said...

The reason I'm a pantser is because I'd rather fall (slightly) on the Too Little side of foreshadowing than on the Too Much side. When I plan it all out beforehand I slather it on, a big red arrow pointing toward The Reveal.

I'm usually stringing together the five to ten images that made me start writing the piece in the first place (Scott's 'subconscious knowledge', perhaps?). Part of that linking process is an organic foreshadowing.

MataPam said...

I'm not sure I count as either a pantser or a plotter.

I tend to write spontaneously to solidify the character and or situation in my mind and on paper. Then I stop and do some minimal planning. What is the problem? How do they get into it? How do they get out of it?

My outline tends to be half a page of bullet points. I start back writing, with the end point of the story in mind. But after I've gone three forths of the way, I tend to realize I need the bad guy's POV, or the other group's POV, or to go back and make sure the reasons are clear.

I guess I write like painting a house. Two layers of primer and then the final coat. Going back to the start and adding another layer. As often as needed.

I suspect my proper classification is thus "Learner."

Dave Freer said...

David, if that works for you, good. But that does limit your foreshadowing to 4-5 scenes. Or do you go back and insert? Or is your subconcious doing it for you?

Dave Freer said...

Matapam -I often write 5k or so with a vague knowledge of the outcome, and not much more, before evolving a somewhat more structured plot. You need know your setting, characters, tone, etc before plotting is really effective, IMO

Chris L said...

As a Pantser with long trousers, I think many of us foresee certain elements of character development well before we see the final destination of the plot.

Messy comeuppances for instance, I love building up to those.

Kate said...

This pantser has a rather disconcerting tendency to find all the foreshadowing there after I've figured out what the Big Reveal is. It's unnerving.

I think my subconscious likes keeping secrets and rubbing its metaphorical hands together while cackling with gleeful anticipation.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

You were the first person to give me an idea I SHOULD foreshadow. Until you told me and pointed it out to me, I thought EVERYTHING was supposed to be a SURPRISE!
okay, so I was an idiot.

Chris McMahon said...

Good post, Dave. I am a plotter, so I try to seed these through the plot - in deciding what and where to put them, I tend to rely on instinct.

David Barron said...

I mean to say that I've had about 5-10 Wow! (Space Whale! Clipper Ship...on fire! Penguin Carnival!) images and some characters before I sit down and write a piece. More and more scenes naturally develop in the course of fitting all those together

After that draft is finished, it's usually too long, so I run through and streamline it (dropping the length about 20%).

At that point I'd be checking for Non Sequitor/Deus Ex Machina moments and adding foreshadowing as appropriate.