Monday, November 19, 2012



Or: The Gun We Forgot to Plant

The Comments: "This is where I stopped reading and gouged my eyes out." Or "If I'd known you didn't have/weren't going to fire the gun, I would have stopped reading on page 5." Or "Deus ex machina!" 

What they mean: You didn't foreshadow (enough), which meant no suspense or tension. Or the climax is completely unbelievable (deus ex machina, aka: God from machine, aka never-before-mentioned item or character Divine Interventioned your protag's ass). 

There's a dramatic device called Chekhov's Gun, named for his comment, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." IE if there is a gun visible to the audience, there's an expectation, a promise, that it will be fired. That's the heart of foreshadowing: making a promise and fulfilling it.

Frex: With this super symbolic wedding ring, I promise Protag will live happily ever blah blah…
With this storm cloud looming on the horizon, I promise Protag's entire family gets slaughtered, and he has to Mad Max it up. 

If you've read a lot of your genre, you're already probably foreshadowing unconsciously as you write your first draft. Within the first chapter, did you put in a prophecy (fantasy)? Did you put in a new/wonky/not-quite-working-well engine part (sci-fi)? Did you put in a bad feeling/storm cloud/symbolic family heirloom (everything else)? That's foreshadowing. 

But! Here's the tricky part about foreshadowing. Sometimes it's so obvious, not only have you shown Chekhov's Gun, you're pistol-whipping the audience with it. In your WIP, does anyone say "What's the worst that could happen?" Or do you send your Protag out to face the baddie with no flashlight/wep or ridiculously unprepared with a TSTL sidekick/LI?

If writing in 3rd/1st Omni, how many times did you say something like "In retrospect, that's when things went bat-poop cray cray" or "and Bob's life was never the same yadda yadda"? 

Foreshadowing can also fizzle out. The gun is too vague (is that a gun in your pocket, are are you just etc?), or the length between showing it and firing it is too long. Frex: At the end of the story, when you do get around to firing it, it seems to come out of nowhere.

"But I totes planted it in the last paragraph of chapter 1!"
That was forty-five chapters ago, Skippy. I call deus ex machina!
How do you get around both these probs?

Let's put our serious pants on.

We'll start with the fizzle and work our way up to pistol-whipping.

Think of it this way: Why have one gun when you can have a dozen different guns? And the bigger the gun, the stronger the impression. 

Click to embiggen. I think.

Let's call the overarching Promise of your story The Bazooka. You show a bazooka to someone, they'll remember it. This is The Prophecy in Harry Potter. Paul Atreides and the Gom Jabbar. Ender  whales on Stilson (coming to theaters 2013!). 

Cutey ptooty Asa Butterfield plays Ender Wiggin. Photo from IMDb.

Bazookas, right?

But that's not enough. In Dune, Paul gets a bunch of symbolic names: Usul, Muad'dib, Bene Gesserit Messiah. No one's firing The Bazooka yet. These are smaller guns being planted. The sniper rifle (Usul). The Desert Eagle (Muad'dib). The flamethrower (Messiah). 

He totes knew how to put on that suit. Photo from Dune Wikia.
Each gun has a specific purpose, an integrated storyline. But they all get fired at some point. And every time a planted gun is discovered, then fired, the story's getting street cred. "I showed you the rifle, the pistol, and the flamethrower. Then I fired them. You gonna stick around for when I bring The Bazooka out again?" F**k yeah. 

Fulfilling the little promises means you earn the reader's trust. I'm not thinking about putting your story down and fixing a sammich. I'm thinking: When is he going to fire that Bazooka? How? At whom? By whom? I have to know (because boy did crap explode when he fired that flamethrower!).

And now, let's take a look at your pistol-whipping problem. The guns (your Promises) are too obvious. They're not even mounted on Chekhov's wall at this point – actors are waving them around like it's New Year's Eve!

Here's something we can hide the guns with: a thesaurus. [Really great article on thesauri and connotations by Lois Levine (NY Times) found on @mainelarrycrane's twitter feed.]

Awfully generic sentence for us to deconstruct:
George walked in, carrying a bunch of flowers. – Totes neutral.

George – Protag
Walked in – neutral blocking
Carrying – pretty neutral verb
A bunch – totes vague
Flowers – totes vague
Consult thesaurus and reconstruct to foreshadow doom:
George strode in, bearing a knot of white lilies.
George strode in,[1] bearing[2] a knot[3] of white lilies[4].  
  1.   I can hear his heel strike ground, the howl of wind. The O in the middle makes me think Ominous. One doesn't stride up a wedding aisle. One strides when one has something important and unpleasant to do.
  2. This is one of my favorite words. To bear something means to carry it. But "bear" connotes that the thing being carried is a burden, something to be suffered, something to endure. "I cannot bear it!"
  3. Putting "bunch" into three online thesauruses (thesauri?) spit out hundreds of possible synonyms. Frex: bouquet. But what does that connote? IOW, what do you think of when you hear that word? Wedding? Doesn't exactly inspire doom. How about cluster? Say it out loud. Sounds almost… whimsical. How about knot? You hear the echo of its homophones, not (denial) and naught (emptiness)? And what does knot make you think of? A tangle. A puzzle. A problem.
  4. Here I went beyond the thesaurus and dipped into symbolism. Obvi, lilies mean death.
Now, though, it's almost too heavy. Let's change only a few neutral words and modernize it:

George came in, bearing a bunch of wilted lilies.
Even moar modern: George slumped in with a grip of crushed lilies.

Or change it to a happy event:
George sauntered in, carrying a bouquet of yellow roses. (I could have used camellias or birds of paradise as the symbolic flowers, but yellow roses are more commonly associated with friendship/love. Had I used the others, the gun would have been *too* well-hidden.)

In both examples, we kept the action intact but foreshadowed two different events by using words chosen for their connotations.

Next time you go through your WIP, Search and Destroy: vague narrative descriptions. Don't waste a chance to build tension with foreshadowing.

Happy writing and revising! I prophesy great rewards from your endeavors.

Tweet me (@joanreginaldo) if you would like a particular writery subject discussed in a future post!

Coming Up:
It's not enough to have the gun at the end. Your character has to want to fire it.
Purple Writing
Interview with Fantasy/Sci Fi artist Brian Mumphrey
Guest postage from author Robert Bevan


  1. Hi Joan - Good post on foreshadowing. The article reminds me of a ten minute play I decided to test out on some friends. It was a play that involved basketball. For the coach in the play to be credible I thought he needed to talk basketball-ese. So, I sprinkled the text with all kinds of references to "treys" and "back doors" and "cruits". When we reached the end, silence reigned.

    The points you make are "totes" good (did I use that right?). I just wish I didn't have to work so hard to get to them. I say this in all humility and good will.

    1. Thank you for stopping by and the valuable feedback, Larry.
      I'll work on it!

  2. another great post, joan.

    i like to read blog posts about writing (aka: procrastinate), and something i see mentioned not often enough is the unspoken contracts between writer and reader. this is something i think more authors need to be consciously aware of.

    it's a fine line to walk. you have to plant that gun, but you also have to be subtle.

    also, that was an excellent breakdown of picking just the right words from a thesaurus. but writers, please be careful. a thesaurus is a wonderful tool, but it can also make you sound like a pretentious idiot.

    i can't wait to read your upcoming post on purple writing. :)

    1. .... And that's probably what I'll do next! Thanks for stopping by and the idea, Bobby.