Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Foreshadowing 2

To create Type 2 Suspense (anxiety), foreshadow by hinting but holding out. Here is an example of foreshadowing from The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum. It takes place on a street in Kowloon, China and involves a heshang monk and his servant:

The sign came — two abrupt nods — as the priest turned and walked through the beaded entrance of a raucous cabaret. The Zhongguo ren remained outside, his hand unobtrusively under his loose tunic, his own eyes darting about the crazy street, a thoroughfare he could not understand.

The hand unobtrusively under the servant's loose tunic hints that he is carrying a gun. Both that and his darting eyes hint at danger. These hints raise a number of story questions, such as Is the servant carrying a gun? Who are those he's on the lookout for? What is the danger? and What is this monk up to?


It was insane! Outrageous! But he was the tudi; he would protect the holy man with his life, no matter the assault on his own sensibilities.

Inside the cabaret….

Thus Ludlum hints and holds out by leaving us hanging on these hints.

A pivotal character foreshadows conflict in his uncompromising nature. So, when you introduce your pivotal character, show him as uncompromising, relentless. Perhaps even ruthless. Iago is the pivotal character in Othello. He won't accept being passed over for promotion and, as the play opens, he is already working revenge. The Montagues and Capulets are the pivotal characters in Romeo and Juliet — unrelenting foes. Because they won't compromise, they must fight to the death in a struggle for survival. Macbeth is the pivotal character in Macbeth, and Hamlet in Hamlet — though his father's ghost is also a pivotal character. In fact, any ghost is the epitome of an uncompromising character: otherwise he would rest in peace. The six dead soldiers are the pivotal characters in Bury the Dead, Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, Orgon in Tartuffe, Helmer in A Doll's House, Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, and the sharks in The Old Man and the Sea.

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Friday, March 24, 2006


There never was a night without a twilight; a morning without a dawn; a winter without an autumn; a summer without a spring first; they all foreshadow a coming event.

Lajos Egri, in his 1950's classic, The Art of Dramatic Writing.

Egri considered foreshadowing a type of conflict — foreshadowing conflict. Indeed, foreshadowing has the force of conflict, because it promises conflict.

He didn't distinguish between suspense and foreshadowing. (He didn't distinguish between suspense and tension either.) But current authorities usually do. Unlike Egri, they probably wouldn't say that a "guilty" verdict foreshadows sentencing. That's because the story question planted (What will the sentence be?) by the verdict is implicit in it. Instead, they reserve the term foreshadowing for ominous hints of what is to come. It's as though the story were a westward journey toward the sunset, and an approaching event casts its shadow ahead of itself, into the present.

Foreshadowing creates suspense by raising story questions. Here's an example:

That morning, on her way to work, Mary Anne took a gun from a cabinet in the garage, loaded it, and thrust it in her coat pocket.

That sentence foreshadows by raising the ominous story question What's the loaded gun for?

But you needn't startle the reader with information that jumps out at us like that gun. In other words, you needn't be so obvious. You can foreshadow with information that blends into the action. For example, consider Shakespeare's foreshadowing in the first thing Juliet says about Romeo after meeting him:

Go ask his name. If he be married,
My grave is like to be my wedding bed.

Consider also Ernest Hemingway's description of the old man's sail in the opening paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea:

The sail was patched with four sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

The hint can be symbolic. For example, in the end of The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene foreshadows the Mexican priest's capture and execution through references to dark clouds gathering. He makes them omens by using diction that echoes scriptural descriptions of the sky on the day Jesus was crucified. Thus, foreshadowing raises the story question: Is the priest finally going to get captured?

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Monday, March 20, 2006


Though you ordinarily want reader intimacy, sometimes it's best to keep the reader at arm's length — either from the story or from a character (even perhaps the protagonist) or both.

For example, especially in the opening of a novel, you don't want to the reader to feel accosted by something off-putting that is too close for comfort. He hasn't been hooked yet and may put the book down. So, if the story is grim or gruesome (especially in the beginning) or rattles the reader's cage, some authors distance it from the reader with a subtle reminder that it's fiction. Other writers, like Steven King, never pull back, except in the opening. For example, in the opening of Carrie, he pulls back by relating the rain of stones on Carrie's mother's house in the form of hard fact, but in a distancing way, as newspaper articles about the event.

Writers often do this when a story brings reader into a confrontation with the pure will to evil. The story needn't be too unreal: it may just as well be too real. For example, the story might turn the reader's world upside down by showing how evil pulls an image-switch with goodness. The reader can perplex on you and refuse to suspend disbelief, because what he's reading is a little too true and unsettling.

If a character is chillingly evil, the author might refer to him in impersonal and distancing terms instead of by character name or through a pronoun.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Use inner conflict to evoke reader empathy.

Inner conflict is essential for two reasons. First, without it you have melodrama. Second, without it your character doesn't evoke the necessary emotional response from the reader.

For example, without inner conflict, you have something like a fairy tale or Godzilla. There's no inner conflict in deciding what to do about Godzilla. Your characters aren't deeply involved, so how can the reader be?

But if your character suffers inner conflict, he evokes reader empathy. Readers strongly identify with characters through empathy. That spell of identification is what securely hooks the reader and induces the Fictive Dream. Without inner conflict, a character in dire straits evokes, at best, pity. Worse, if the character is flawed, like Humbert in Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita, we will loathe him unless you show inner conflict in him.

You can improve a love story, for example, by introducing a cause of inner conflict. What if both are serious about their religion and their religions clash? What if one is a Montague and the other a Capulet?

The stronger the inner conflict, the greater the drama. In fact, with strong inner conflict your story needn't have titanic antagonists, the fate of the free world at stake, or explosive action. A corporate executive may bilk stockholders for billions with less inner conflict than you or I experience in pocketing a quarter of extra change from a cashier. Yet a poor man may agonize over stealing a loaf of bread to feed his children.

Because of his inner conflict, that poor man's story has more potential drama and success than the corporate executive's story does. So, even in a story of pure fun, like the Indiana Jones trilogy, Steven Spielberg gives us moments of great inner conflict that involve us in the important decisions Indy makes.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Idea Stories

Every story has a story idea that poses a question or problem in the beginning, which is answered or solved in the end. You read the story to pursue that answer or solution.

Most stories hook you with a question or problem that is bait to arouse curiosity and emotional interest. So, you read simply to find out what happens.

But in some stories the question or problem is an enigma. An enigma isn't bait, it's a challenge, an intellectual challenge. Most such stories are classed as mysteries. The nature of a mystery dictates the nature of our interest and involvement in the story, making it intellectual rather than emotional.

Our attention is thus focused on the idea/enigma, and the story is an idea story about that idea/enigma — not about the characters in it. Idea stories are usually, at least in part, brain teasers that appeal to readers like other kinds of brain teasers and sophisticated computer games do.

For example:
  • In a murder mystery, somebody is murdered, and the story is devoted to discovering whodunit (spelled with two n's in British English), how, and why.
  • In a caper story, a problem is posed in the form of an "impossible mission," a crime to be pulled off and gotten away with, such as a bank or museum to rob, a gangster to con, or somebody to kidnap or rescue. The very notion that it "can't be done" is the challenge. The story is devoted to how the main characters go about solving this problem. They devise a brilliant plan, but, of course, things go wrong and they must improvise.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

British English or American English?

Or Australian English, for that matter. (Canadian English is American English.)

Generally, write in your language. Ultimately, it's up to the publisher. For an international audience the standard is American English for obvious reasons. In international business documents, software documentation, and Internet publication, American English is usually preferred.

But this standard isn't closely adhered to, because all forms of English grow more alike than different today.

If somebody is going to think you erred because you write the American different than instead of the British different from, tell him or her to ditch the arrogance. American English is as English as English English. Americans have their own language and needn't conform to British standards.

Besides, stuff like that is no problem. If your publisher wants the language to conform to a particular standard, copyediting can find and fix those little things quickly and easily.

Figures of speech, or even certain words, can be a problem though! Strange misunderstandings can occur if you aren't careful with them. So, for example, try to avoid using words and expressions that mean or connote something different to Americans than to Brits.