Tag Archives: craft

Foreshadowing that whispers and foreshadowing that goes “Thump!”

Foreshadowing is that most fundamental of narrative tricks, the suggestion or weaving together of future action or outcomes with a character’s ‘present’ situation. The Publetariat provides five snarky but all too accurate examples, including:

There should be a useless looking object that your character gets stuck with. It should be so seemingly irrelevant that it can only be exceptionally relevant. Later, it saves your protagonist’s life

It’s particularly on my mind at the moment because of both the revision of the WIP I’m prevaricating about and the novel I’m currently reading – Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch.

I’ve written before about Sutcliff’s marvellous Eagle of the Ninth where foreshadowing is used in an allusive, poetic way. The hero, a Roman centurion called Marcus, forms a close across-cultural-barriers bond with a local chieftain with whom he is later to come into conflict. Further on in the book (notice how carefully I’m trying to dance around possible spoilers here?) Marcus forms a not dissimilar bond with another  Briton. The parallels in the two relationships and the many contrasts and ironies they suggest are never explicitly pointed out. Instead, Sutcliff simply lets the story unfold and the resonances accumulate beautifully and poetically for themselves. The result is a yet another thematic layer added to an already richly layered story.

With The Silver Branch, things are a little different. I’m only fifty four pages in (and I’m enjoying it) but the occasional foreshadowing doesn’t so much whisper in the ear of the reader as yell “Ahoy! Seriously plot point alert! PAY ATEN-SHUN, READER!” while waving a placard. For example, The Eagle of the Ninth centres around a quest to recover a lost Eagle, a standard belonging to a legion that marched north and was never seen again. Twenty or so pages into The Silver Branch, we learn that an ancestor of the two main characters was rumoured to have had some sort of a quest to do with an Eagle. “I’m not sure,” a character says, “but I’ve always wondered if it could have something to do with the lost Ninth.” Now I suspect that the Eagle is going to turn up in a very satisfying way but the hint lands in the text like a brick.

Of course, this highlights another problem – how to weave information from a first book into a sequel, especially if the lives of the characters are completely discontinuous. Without getting too sidetracked into what is another question entirely, I note that foreshadowing in sequels seems to all too easily tip into information dumping, a little bit of which seems to have happened here.

A separately clunky bit of foreshadowing is a scene, very early on, when the main villain of the piece crushes a moth in a really brutal way. The scene in itself is perfectly well-written but it’s just too much – we’ve already had half-a-dozen hints in the same scene that this individual is a nasty piece of work. Again, the foreshadowing commentator with a megaphone is at the reader’s ear: “This man is a killer and he will crush someone like a moth!”.

Now I don’t want to put you off what is shaping up to be a worthy (if occasionally flawed) sequel to something of a minor masterpiece and I’ll review The Silver Branch in full at a later date. But this foreshadowing stuff. Tricky.  As Lynette Labelle notes, you want the reader to understand that the clues to the killer or thief or trickster or whatever were there all along, if only they’d noticed them. Diana Wynne Jones does this particularly well in Archer’s Goon.

What’s the best and worse bit of foreshadowing anyone’s come across? Currently, I’d personally go with the use of the gun in 1Q84 (I reviewed it here). But you’ll have to read it to see what I mean.

Insecure Writers Support Group #3 – Revising

So here I am again with the Insecure Writers Support Group thing. Hard to believe it’s already the first Wednesday in February (though I’m actually writing this on the last Tuesday if you want to be picky).

And the insecurity du jour? Revising! Cue vicious orchestral stabs etc.

I finally trudged through to the last scene (which I think I improved on), the last paragraph and the last word of the current draft on Saturday. Along the way, 64,000 words somehow ballooned to 97,000. I’ve clearly got to get hold of a very large pair of scissors. Of course, before I actually do this, I have to swiftly whiz through the whole epic mess and discover, well, whether it simply needs a lot of work or if it’s (gulp) just not very good.

The former, I’m geared up for. The latter I really don’t want to think about.

Meanwhile, when all else fails, one can take refuge in technique. So here’s a few posts on revising that have caught my attention over the last few months.

Anyone else got any useful revision tips?

Conflict in characters, settings, societies

Most of my commuting this week has been spent bent over Donald Maas’s Writing The Breakout Novel. I’m not entirely sure if I’m trying to write a bestseller or not but I’m certainly trying to write the best book I can and Maas’s book is by far one of the better craft texts I’ve encountered. I’ve just finished a section on plot and one chapter “take-out” particularly struck me:

The essence of story is conflict

Maas treats issues of conflict in characters, story arcs, subplots and much much more in great depth. He dissects how many ‘best-in-class’ authors use conflict to maintain tension, carry the reader on from scene to scene, engage us with characters and structure the overall novel from beginning to end. It’s one of those writing lessons which you’ll find all over the blogosphere but Maas goes into the kind of concentrated technical detail that seriously contributes to one’s writing.

The current exemplary YA treatment of conflict would probably be the ruthlessly efficient conflict-driven story-telling of the Hunger Games trilogy. But it doesn’t always have to be geometrically precise love triangles or alienation-by-numbers. I recently re-read Tove Jansson’s haunting Moominvalley In November and conflict is as much at the core of her story as in Collins’ (admittedly thrilling) books. The Moomin family are missing and a new temporary family of strange creatures assembles at their empty home to wait for them. But the Hemulen, Toft, the Fillyjonk and the others are severely conflicted in their vision of the absent Moomins. They bicker, compete and contradict each other over the validity of their increasingly suspect memories (“It’s just how Moominmama would like it!”) until it gradually becomes plain that the source of their external conflict is each character’s inner turmoil. The story may begin as a ‘where are the Moomins and when are they coming back?’ mystery but the true plot deals with how these individual character conflicts are resolved.

Another use of conflict between characters (as well as all the plot driven layers you’d expect), is found in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy. He frequently carries us through entire scenes on the back of the rancourous conflict between the demon Bartimaeus and pretty much anyone else engaging with him, generally born out of his utter contempt for pitiful human beings. Then there’s the inner conflict driving the demon – his instinct to destroy and lie to anyone he’s beholden to and the constraining spells that oblige him to obey and support his masters. One might argue that another layer is provided by the conflict between what the denizens of the books’ twisted alternate reality consider to be ‘good’ and  and our own expectations of the just and the ethical. What really makes it work in Stroud’s novels, though, is the utter conviction which carries it along – the mechanics of the writing, the wires and CGI work delineated by Maas, stay hidden.

Charles Dickens uses the enormous social conflict of the French Revolution in A Tale Of Two Cities to illuminate and shadow the class, social and emotional conflict of his characters. Rather less loftily, in my own work-in-progress, the main characters find themselves in a more liminal situation – torn between two worlds and two sets of loyalties with the conflicts within both societies causing them to constantly question any temporary resolution they might find.

How do you deal with conflict?

Good stuff relating to conflict by people who know what they’re talking about?

http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2011/10/do-you-need-dragon.html Lack of conflict? Call in a dragon!

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psychology-writers/201109/what-really-drives-your-characters “A psychologist writes…”

http://fictiongroupie.blogspot.com/2011/08/wait-for-itwaaaait-for-it-nuance-of.html Stakes vs Character vs Suspense

http://kidlit.com/2011/08/17/first-lines-from-the-shelves/ Establishing conflict from the very first line!

And, of course, Maas’ book. (We’ll pass lightly over the section where he predicts that ebooks will never take off…)

Life and how to live it: trying to embed the everyday in my writing

One of the things I wrestle with (okay, regular readers will know I wrestle with everything) is how much of the everyday to put into my books. By that, I mean cooking, eating, going to the loo, having a period*, shaving, washing up, having a bath, squeezing zits…you get the picture. For example, the opening scene to the pretty-okay Roman military  historical novel Under The Eagle by Simon Scarrow is set in the official centurions’ latrines and I wonder whether the whole point of the scene is to enable Scarrow to drop in the ever-so-important historical detail of a ‘sponge-on-a-stick‘ (warning! Link goes to a clip from a popular UK children’s TV show. It doesn’t pull any punches). The detail certainly grounds you in a very different time and place but it also sets up an expectation for a similar level of grit and (dirty) realism that isn’t necessarily met. You could probably classify it as a ‘token detail’, the kind of little touches that stick out because they have to carry too heavy a load in terms of grounding a text in a different kind of reality. And I suppose the other problem Scarrow has is that there simply isn’t a sufficiently colloquial English term for ‘sponge on a stick’.

Science fiction writers have long had a list of accepted conventions dealing with the everyday ‘realities’ for hardcore readers. Everyone knew what a blaster or hyperspace was by the mid-forties – for all of the modish accoutrements of sex, explicit violence and swearing, the average reader of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith in 1925 would have very little difficulty diving into the latest Iain M. Banks. Toilets, however, seldom feature. Nor bad hair days. Detective novels have a different set of ‘everyday living’ conventions – Sara Paretsky’s (marvellous, by the way) V.I. Warshawski is forever taking showers, going for runs or eating (detectives eat a lot, don’t they? Is that why they do so much running?) and the ‘real life’ element is something that seems to transition into a lot of urban thrillers.

How does this appear in my own writing, particularly with regard to the YA ‘parallelish-world-urban-rural-steampunk-fantasy’ I’m working on?

I suppose constantly ask myself how far I should go. For example, I had a long, coma-inducing scene of vegetable peeling and cooking until I encountered the Venerable Diana Wynne Jones’ skewering of ‘ colourful canal folk who make you cook’ in her Tough Guide To Fantasyland. In retrospect, the whole purpose of the scene was to have a male character pushed into cooking by a female character, an ideological trope parachuted in from another context altogether and probably saying more about my own guilty conscience than the state of mind of the characters. Plus, it was a very boring scene and the forward momentum was better off without it.

So when should I use domestic detail or otherwise? It can be a powerful tool for embedding you into a foreign or fantastic context, for ‘making things strange’ but can be equally distracting. I suppose it comes down to the usual craft cliché of “Does it advance the story?” I have a number of odd little details which aren’t just there to provide scenery – they progress the story or our understanding of the characters and the world they live a degree and that progression is hopefully what people will take away with them. The ultimate example of this could be Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy in Ulysses. At one level, it’s nothing more than a river(run) of tiny details but the cumulative effect is one of total immersion in Molly’s inner life. In Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, Haymitch’s vomit isn’t just a comedy moment, it also tells us a lot about that characters inner nihilism and despair.

And there you have it – the detail has to serve the story or get ruthlessly cut out. Does anyone else struggle with this?

* The politics of men writing about periods is a whole other post but it always smacks of a “Look at me! I’m a man and I’m secure enough to write normatively about periods!” kind of desperation.

** “…picked up a potato and began to clumsily wrestle with…” and on and on. You really don’t want to know.