Foreshadow the Future

Foreshadow the Future

Ruth E. Walker

I enjoy the outdoors. I get pleasure in working in the garden, especially at my cottage. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty or derive pleasure when my plants flower or produce fruit. Nighttime calls of spring peepers in the far-off swamp or critters hopping under the shade of the hosta remind me of renewal. Even the cold hand of winter offers pleasures, albeit frigid and at times, deadly.

I tell you this – my affection for the natural world and my respect for it — to set the stage for what is to follow. In fiction, this is referred to as foreshadowing.

Humane Humans

Nature has a way of reminding cottagers that flora and fauna were here first. Anyone who has struggled with fallen trees, poison ivy infestations or rodent incursions can confirm that. As much as is possible, we avoid herbicides for irritant flora. We use live traps for the rodents, my kind husband trekking over to the swamp to release the pesky mice.

It’s not to say we don’t target poison ivy with Round Up when the hillside is awash in the stuff and there’s been no deer around to help control it. And yes, snapping traps and even Warfarin has been pulled out when humane methods can’t keep up. But it’s never the first choice. And we hate the result.

A Murder Most Foul

Despite knowing that death is part of nature, I get upset when I find a dragonfly crushed on the sidewalk or drive past roadkill on the highways. Poor things, I think.

Nonetheless, I became the dealer of death at the cottage. Those gardens I like to tend? They’re all edged with a variety of rocks. Attractive to look at until the grass grows up around them. The lawnmower can’t trim that. So I get up close and personal with my garden shears.

Last month, I crouched down by the rocks, snipping away at the green growth. Until my shears cut through something else. Something that felt like bunched fabric. Or worse. And it was. I decapitated an adult frog. A split second before, it was crouched in the shadow of a rock overhang, unseen. Then it sprang out at the precise moment the two sharp edges of my shears met and severed its head and life in an instant.

Man, I was sick at heart. Still am, in fact.

I’ve spent weeks trying to blot that image out of my head. Today, while once more trimming the rocks, I was so careful. I made a lot of noise, knocking my shears against the rocks. I called out: “Foreshadowing. Here I am. Pay attention, critters.” And weirdly, that got me thinking about how important foreshadowing can be in writing.

Why Foreshadow

Dropping clues into fiction arouses the interest of readers and that’s a primary benefit for any writer. Laying a foundation of foreshadowing creates anticipation that pulls readers through the story. Writers have a full set of tools to inject foreshadowing: images, character action/reaction, dialogue and setting elements, for example. From concrete objects to shadows and colours, the important part is choosing the right tool in the right place.

When you foreshadow, you tickle readers’ curiosity. When you deliver the on that foreshadow, you evoke emotions in readers. You can build internal tension by doling out that delivery bit by bit.

  • Opening scene: Shadowy figure in distance at funeral of POV character’s mother
  • Mid-point: Shadowy figure shows up trying to attack the POV character but evades capture
  • Final scene: Shadowy figure reveals she is POV character’s birth mother & wasn’t trying to attack but longed just to hold him again

That’s a powerful writing tool. But there are a few DOs and DON’Ts of foreshadowing all writers should keep in mind. Here’s three to get you started.

Don’t use a hammer when a feather is enough. An obvious foreshadow is a hammer: As she watched the overloaded pleasure boat pull away from the dock with her husband and children waving jauntily to her, she thought that she should have insisted they all wear lifejackets. Be subtle instead.

Do try to be strategic. Not all foreshadowing leads the reader to the conclusion they expected. Sometimes it is useful to have readers think they know what will happen but then you surprise them. But be careful: the foreshadow still needs to lead to the unexpected result. Be logical.

Don’t worry about foreshadow in the first draft. A bit like reverse engineering, subtle hints and deliberately placed objects or elements are part of editing that first draft. That’s not to say that you didn’t already have foreshadowing in the early writing, but often it is of the hammer variety. Your job is to refine that into the subtle variety. Edit with purpose.

Back to the Beginning

Part of working in foreshadow is returning to the beginning to find places where it can be added. But foreshadow is not restricted to the beginning of a story or novel. It can be an effective tool at the start of a new scene or to create suspense at the end of a scene or chapter.

It is, however, most effective at the start. It sets up expectations. So, what about going back to the beginning of this piece and checking it for elements of foreshadowing? In the comments, share anything you noticed.

Dialogue helpers

Dialogue helpers

Gwynn Scheltema

One of my grandchildren texted me: “School starts in 2 days” followed by no less than 6 emojis, all different. Smiley, sad, angry, astonished, upside down and shrugging.

By themselves, her text words could have been interpreted several ways: Yikes! I can’t believe school starts in 2 days after so long. Or I’m so excited that school is starting in 2 days. Or OMG I’m dreading the fact that school starts in 2 days.

What was this child trying to tell me? Or was she just trigger happy on the emoji screen? What was she expecting from me? A thumbs up, or something more? I opted for the “something more”, and we ended up having a lengthier discussion about what was bothering her. All good.

But the incident reminded me that in the absence of sound volume and intonation, words in messages have to be specific enough to convey the right message.

Fiction dialogue

The same applies to fiction dialogue.  And if the words can’t do it, the author needs to use one of several “dialogue helpers” to clarify.

I remember in a critique group years ago, a writer read aloud a small excerpt from his chapter where we follow the protagonist (a male teacher at a private boarding school) up to the principal’s office. Then a line of dialogue: “Sit down,” said the principal. “We must talk about young Jonas.”

Had I been reading the words myself from the page, I would have assumed that this was to be a cordial conversation between teacher colleagues, but unexpectedly, the author delivered the dialogue in a loud angry voice. Where was that emotion in the text? The dialogue needed help so readers could imagine the tone.

Dialogue helpers

  • Using someone’s full name, title or nickname

Did your mother ever add your middle name when she was angry: “Alison Elizabeth Martin! Get in here this minute.” Or a pet name when she was trying to console? “Oh Snooks, tell me all about it.”

If this principal usually calls the protagonist Bill, then using his full name William will signal that something is wrong. He might go further by removing any personal connection and using his title, or calling him Mr.

“Coach Simons, sit down…..”

  • Sentence construction

Match the length and type of sentence to the emotion being expressed. In an angry situation, short commands are more likely. “Get in here.” Friendly conversations will begin with greetings and perhaps questions about the other’s situation or feelings. “What have you been doing lately?” “How’s your Mum?” “What’s the matter?”

“Coach Simons. Close the door.”

The command to close the door signals that what is to follow is private. Issued as a command suggests that the person entering is in trouble. Short clipped sentences support tension.

  • Word choice

Think about how many words people use in different emotional states and what kind of words. The angry mother commands in simple words what she wants done. “Get in here this minute.” She doesn’t acknowledge what the recipient wants or feels, nor is she concerned with politeness. She is not likely to say, “When you’ve finished playing with Julie, please come inside.”

The principal would need to be professional but show his anger in some way.

“Coach Simons. Close the door. Sit there… please.”

Allotting a specific chair signals control in the hands of the principal. Adding a hesitant “please” at the end preserves civility but diminishes cordiality.

  • Voice description

A word of caution here. Describing the actual sounds in the scene is different from “labelling” them using attributives like “he said angrily”.

NOT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal said angrily.

BUT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth

  • Body language

The unspoken vocabulary of body language is a gold mine for conveying emotions. Use it.

“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.”

  • Beats

Beats are physical actions a character makes while speaking. The pointed finger in the last example is both a gesture and a beat. But beats are not just gestures. They are all actions your character might make that help to animate your dialogue scene. Think of it as the difference between listening to a stage play where everyone stands in a line and recites their words versus the acting that happens on stage as characters speak.

“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.” The principal walked to the window, and stared out to the courtyard below for a full minute before he turned to face Simons.

Obviously, you don’t need every helper in every dialogue situation, but add these to your writers toolkit to use whenever you need them.

There All Along

There All Along

Guest Post: Erin Thomas

Today I took a life drawing class, part of a teacher meet-and-greet event at Centennial College. Unlike the gentleman who jokingly stood up and pretended to walk away when the teacher explained that there was no nude model, I was intrigued by the sound of our assignment: we were going to draw an eye.

 First Steps

The charcoal felt alarmingly light in my fingers and snapped off at the slightest provocation, but I slowly got the hang of drawing with the side of it, not the tip. Shading. Playing with weight and layers and darkness. The bumps on the easel board under my paper gave an interesting texture, like leaf-and-crayon art.hand-drawn-987070_1280

The eye was a sphere, the teacher explained, and that was where we were to start—just shading a circle. With no real understanding of how the dark blob on my paper was going to turn into an eyeball, I followed her lead. Soon we were covering part of the eye-circle with lines that turned into an eyelid. A lower lid followed. I had lines in the wrong spot; finger-smudging made them paler, but they didn’t quite disappear.

“Don’t try to copy,” the teacher advised. “Just think about the shape of the eye.” But I couldn’t see the sphere of it anymore. The lid seemed to be covering an eye-blob that was a different shape than the eye-blob that was emerging.

Adding More 

I made more lines. It didn’t help.

I stepped back, tryeye-1447938_1280ing to find the beach ball of the greater eye within the drawing. It looked wrong, that was all. Unbalanced. I had drawn the eye of a crazed murderer, a horror-movie clown. And it was staring at me.

I made a line, smudged it out. Tried again, making a bigger mess each time. Eyelashes maybe? No. It turned out that eyelashes were not the answer.

 Uncovering

“Good,” the teacher said. Good? Were we looking at the same drawing? Ah. This was teacher good, not real good. I have used this good myself.

“Just clean it up here and here,” she added, and with an eraser she cleaned up some of the leaf-and-crayon-like texture in the eye-white. She showed me that there is usually a space between the iris and the lower lid, and with a quick dodge of her hand, made it appear. She adjusted the shape of the area over the eye, and suddenly it matched what was beneath it.

There all Along

Now I could see the beach-ball roundness, the shape of it, the lines that belonged and the ones that didn’t. It had been there all along; I just couldn’t see the shape of it. Now, I could.

Erin's Eyeball Art
Erin’s Eyeball Art

How often have I done this with a piece of writing? When something’s not working, sometimes our impulse is to keep adding lines. Add another character to supply the missing bit of information, add a plot twist to add excitement. Soon the shape of the story is obscured.

Part of what I love about my writing groups is their ability to see the shape of the eyeball underneath it all, when I can’t. To point out which lines I should erase. How many times will I need to learn the lesson that the right answer to a story problem is usually the one that’s already seeded in the manuscript? Sitting there. Waiting to be seen.

What doesn’t add…

The miracle of the eraser reminds me of my favourite piece of writing advice, one I heard from Kathy Stinson, although she makes no claim to have invented it. “What doesn’t add, subtracts.” And sometimes, it seems, subtracting is a way of adding.

Stories, it seems, have shapes of their own. telling-libraries-stories-with-video-11-638

Switching between charcoal and eraser, I made an eye. This eyeball art of mine is not going to win any prizes. It was not even the best piece of rookie eyeball art hanging on the wall with all of the other rookie-art eyeballs. But it is arguably the best thing I’ve ever drawn.

I’m going to keep a picture of it handy, to remind me to think about the shape of my story. To remind me, when I’m frustrated and lost in the lines, to be patient—to step back, to try again. The thing I’m drawing with my words might already be there, waiting to be uncovered.

Erin-1-042-4x5-rgb-240x300

Erin Thomas writes books for children and young adults from her home in Whitby, Ontario. She enjoys trying new hobbies on for size, but promises not to pursue a career in fine art. For more information, visit www.erinthomas.ca.
Draco’s Fire (HIP Books Fall 2009)
Boarder Patrol (Orca Sports Spring 2010).
Wolves at the Gate (HIP Books Spring 2011)
Overboard (HIP Books, Spring 2012)
Haze (Orca Sports, Spring 2012)
Roller Coaster (HIP Books, Fall 2013)
Forcing the Ace (Orca Limelights, 2014)