May You Write Interesting Books — part 7

Plot Can Never Dull Her Infinite Variety

Okay.  So, you’ve got all your ducks in a row. Unless your plot is about misaligned ducks.  You’ve sent the pope for a swim.  You’ve Heinleined your info.  You’ve let go of what you can’t control.  Your plot starts with action.  You throw us in head first.  Your middle sequence is a rising series of battles.

And yet, your first readers, or, worse, your reviewers, read your book and say “It’s so boring.”  So you scratch your head and you say “Uh, but I did it all right.”

And you might have done.  But what you might be looking at is a failure of foreshadowing technique.

Foreshadowing is one of those things no one tells you are essential and which, when it fails, mimics several other issues.  So you might get told you don’t have a plot.  Or that your timing is wrong.  Or that the plot is too predictable or not predictable enough.

If you’re getting told stuff like that, and you’re absolutely sure you have a plot and that the plot is long enough for your needs and that it does in fact have some surprises in the structure, you might have a foreshadow failure.

How can that be a foreshadow failure?  Well… To explain, let me give you an overview of a situation in which foreshadowing – what we make sure readers know ahead of a scene and which they need to know for the scene to work – is essential.

Okay, here’s the situation, not unusual for a woman-in-peril or a thriller.  Your female character comes home to her apartment.  She’s showering, undressing, putting make up on.  And while she’s doing all this, there’s a serial killer hidden in the closet, watching her, waiting to strike.

You can make several mistakes with this kind of situation.

1 – killer from the ceiling, a variant of elephant from the ceiling.  This is page 120, the killer has never been mentioned yet, and suddenly he springs out of the closet and tries to knife your character.  This almost kills your reader with shock, as until now he thought this was a book about mutant chickens.  Don’t do this.  If your mutant-chicken stalking serial killer is needed now, but you didn’t plan on him, go backward and make sure that he’s mentioned, hinted at or somehow suspected from the beginning.

2 – The killer has been talked about so much that when he shows up people go “Oh, it’s just the killer.  This is so boring.  We’ve expected him all along!”  Master the art of foreshadowing without making it so obvious that people are going “Oh, the killer.  DUH.”  One way to do this is – to paraphrase Heinlein, misdirection, indirection and razzle dazzle.  Mention of the killer is in a talk about mutant chicken eggs.  Alternately he’s mentioned, but your character laughs at the idea. When it happens it’s not out of the blue, but you also don’t expect it all along.

3 – We don’t know killer is in the closet.  Let me put it this way – your character showering, putting on her best clothes and applying make up is NOT riveting.  However, if we know killer in the closet might jump out at her at any minute, it becomes fascinating.  We watch and wait for the killer to attack.  Good suspense.


4- You tell us everything about the killer ahead of time.  We know he won’t jump out till midnight.  This takes all the interest out of the dressing scene.  This is a failure of TOO much foreshadowing.

Now you’re sitting there, holding your breath and threatening to turn blue if I don’t tell you how to do this foreshadowing thing just right.

I can’t.  This is something you learn by doing.  One small thing you can do is make yourself aware of it.  Take two of your favorite books re-read and mark or compile all instances of foreshadowing.  And then practice, practice, practice.

You wouldn’t expect to dance the ballet without practicing, and I guarantee you Mona Lisa was not DaVinci’s first picture.  So, to learn foreshadowing, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

5 thoughts on “May You Write Interesting Books — part 7

  1. One clever trick might be to foreshadow immediately before the killer-in-the-closet. If the character is, indeed, in an Everyday Situation that is about to Go Bad… Hint that Not All Is Normal. Why is the cat being particularly weird? (Or shut in a different closet?) Where on earth did those earrings get off to this time?? Are the neighbors upstairs smoking again? It sure does smell like someone’s been doing it…

    (Of course, if the protagonist in danger is like me, one funny noise has her (or him) prowling through the house with a naked sword in one hand. Sometimes in a satin sleepshirt. I figure that if anyone’s in the house who shouldn’t be, it can only give me a little extra “WTH???” cognitive dissonance time to run somebody through. >_> Also, I pay attention to which cats show up to wonder why I’m down there if not to feed them.)

  2. One suggestion on foreshadowing — like mystery plotting, mazes, and probably some other things that I’ll think of later, this is one area of writing that is a little easier to do backwards. Start by writing the part that needs foreshadowing, then go back and revise the earlier parts to add foreshadowing. Just like you need the sun to produce shadows, you need your writing peak — that killer jumping out of the closet, the odd couple falling in love, or whatever — to help you figure out what foreshadowing you need. Revision is a good time to lay on the foreshadowing!

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