The Short Road Home, part VI: Tommy! Watch out for that bear lurking at the end of the scene! Tommy!

Yesterday, as I was blithely chattering about the various narrative disadvantages of the Short Road Home — for those of you joining us mid-series, that’s my pet name for when a book introduces a conflict, only to resolve it immediately, often before the reader has a chance to register that the problem raised is at all serious — I mentioned in passing that in both novels and memoirs, agents and editors often see the use of the historical future tense as part of a writerly plot to minimize the tension of what could be a very exciting scene.

How does a simple tense choice set off this level of alarm bells? Because of the alarming ubiquity of section-opening paragraphs that telling the reader how the scene how it’s going to end before the scene even begins. Sometimes, such foreshadowing is subtle:

But although I didn’t know it at the time, my days of wine and roses were soon to come to an end — and in a way that I could never have anticipated in a thousand years of constant guessing. How was I to know that every child only has so many circuses in him before he snaps?

When my great-uncle Cornelius came down to breakfast waving the circus tickets, I couldn’t have been happier…

Sometimes, though, foreshadowing is so detailed that it more or less operates as a synopsis of the scene to come:

My hard-won sense of independence was not to last long, however. All too soon, the police would march back into my life again, using my innocuous string of 127 unpaid parking tickets (hey, everyone is forgetful from time to time, right?) as an excuse to grab me off the street, throw me in the back of a paddy wagon, and drag me off to three nights’ worth of trying to sleep in a cell so crowded that the Black Hole of Calcutta would have seemed positively roomy by contrast.

It all began as I was minding my own business, driving to work on an ordinary Tuesday…

In both cases, the narrative is telling, not showing and telling the story out of chronological order, right? The latter is generally a risky choice, because, let’s face it, unless you’re writing a book that features time travel, most readers will expect events to unfold in chronological order — or if not, for flashbacks to be well-marked enough that the reader never needs to ask, “Wait, when is this happening?”

For the sake of clarity, then, beginning a scene at the beginning and proceeding to the end without extensive temporal detours is the established norm. But this structure holds benefits on a tension level as well, because if the reader already knows what is going to happen before a scene begins, the temptation to skim or even skip the recap can be considerable.

Particularly, say, if the reader in question happens to be Millicent the agency screener, trying to get through a hundred submissions in an afternoon. Maybe she should run out and grab a latte to perk herself up a little…

So if you were looking for a good place to start cutting in order to get your manuscript under 100,000 words, running a quick scan for the historical future tense might be a dandy place to start. Often, such opening paragraphs may be cut wholesale with little loss to the overall story. Ditto with premature analysis.

Of course, in a well-crafted manuscript, editing choices are not always that cut-and-dried, as clever and incisive memoirist/reader Susan commented yesterday. Talk about foreshadowing: I was planning to elaborate upon perils of foreshadowing today, and she asked yesterday:

I’m assuming that it’s still okay to occasionally employ the historical future (foreshadowing) comments, as long as we don’t prematurely spill the beans…or choke on them…in our rush to analyze, yes?

Susan’s question is excellent — so much so that I strongly suspect that if she asked it at a literary conference, agents and editors would glance at one another sheepishly, not wanting to generalize away the possibility that a writer in the audience could wow ‘em with foreshadowing, and then fall back on that time-worn industry truism, it all depends upon the writing.

Which would be precisely true, yet not really answer the question.

To address it head-on, let’s take another gander at our two examples above. In a novel or a memoir, a writer could probably get away with using the first, provided that the story that followed was presented in an entertaining and active manner.

Yes, Example #1 does provide analysis of action that has not yet happened, from the reader’s point of view — and doesn’t it make a difference to think of a foreshadowing paragraph that way, campers, instead of as a transition between one scene and other? — but it does not, as Susan puts it, spill the beans.

The reader knows that something traumatic is going to happen, and where, but not enough about either the event or the outcome to spoil the tension of the upcoming scene.

In Example #2, by contrast, not only does the narrative announce to the reader the specifics of what is about to occur — told, not shown, so the reader cannot readily picture the scene, so revisiting it seems dramatically necessary — but shoves the reader toward an interpretation of the events to come. After such a preamble, we expect to be outraged.

Which, again, is dangerous strategy in a submission: such an introduction raises the expectations for the scene that follows pretty high, doesn’t it? If a text promises Millicent thrills and doesn’t deliver them, she’s not going to be happy. Trust me on this one.

Frankly, though, if she’s already in a touchy mood — how many times must the woman burn her lip on a latte before she learns to let it cool before she takes a sip? — the mere sight of the historical future might set Millicent’s teeth on edge, causing her to read the scene that follows with a jaundiced eye.

Why, you ask? The insidious long-term result of repetition — because writers, unlike pretty much everybody else currently roaming the planet, just LOVE foreshadowing. The historical future makes most of us giggle like schoolgirls tickled by 5000 feathers.

As with any device that writers as a group overuse, it’s really, really easy to annoy Millicent with the historical future. Especially if she happens to work at an agency that handles a lot of memoir, where it’s unusual to see a submission that DOESN’T use the device several times within the first 50 pages alone.

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon to see it used more than once within the first five.

By the end of any given week of screening, poor Millie has seen enough variations on But little did I know that my entire world was about to crumble to generate some serious doubt in her mind about whether there’s something about writing memoir that causes an author to become unstuck in the space-time continuum on a habitual basis.

Which, in a way, we do. Since memoirs by definition are the story of one’s past, really getting into the writing process can often feel a bit like time-travel.

After all, how else is a memoirist going to recall all of those wonderfully evocative telling details that enlivened the day a bear ate her brother?

Tell me honestly: as a reader, would you rather see that bear jump out of the underbrush and devour bratty little Tommy twice — once before the scene begins, and once at its culmination — or only once?

Or, to put it another way, would you prefer to know that Tommy is going to be a carnivore’s dinner, so you may brace yourself for it — or would you like it better if the scene appeared to be entirely about the narrator and Tommy bickering until the moment when the bear appears?

Most of the time, Millicent would vote for the latter. So would I.

It’s very easy to kill genuine suspense (i.e., the kind that arises organically from the interactions between the characters as the story chugs along) through foreshadowing. All too often, manuscripts tell the story backwards, informing the reader that a shock is to come in such explicit terms that when the shock actually occurs, the reader yawns and says, “So?”

That’s a pretty high price to pay for a transitional sentence or two that sounds cool, isn’t it?

Not all foreshadowing utilizes the historical future tense, of course, but it’s not a bad idea to get into the habit of revisiting any point in the manuscript where the story deviates from chronological order, even for a sentence. Or even — and revising writers almost universally miss this when scanning their own works — for half a sentence.

Seriously, this can pose a tension-reduction problem. Take, for example:

On the day my brother Jacques shocked us all by running away from home, I woke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow him on his uncertain road, leaving the rest of my body behind.

Think about this scene-introducer from the reader’s perspective — even assuming that the reader had gleaned no previous inkling that Jacques might be contemplating going AWOL, what does the narrative gain from opening with the scene’s big shocker? Yes, announcing it this way might well evoke a certain curiosity as to why Jacques ran away from home, perhaps, but why not let the reader experience the shock along with the family?

Taking the latter tack would not even necessarily entail losing the dramatic effect of foreshadowing, either. Take a look at the same scene opener without the spoiler at the beginning of the first sentence:

I awoke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow an uncertain road behind the Pied Piper, leaving the rest of my body behind. If this was what summer vacation felt like, give me six more weeks of school.

Mom burst into the room with such violence that I cringed instinctively, anticipating the obviously unhinged door’s flying across the room at me. “Have you seen Jacques? He’s not in his room.”

More dramatic, isn’t it? Starting off with a description of a normal day and letting the events unfold dramatically is a more sophisticated form of foreshadowing than just blurting out the twist up front.

Not to mention closer to the way people tend to experience surprises in real life– as, you know, a manifestation of the unexpected.

You may laugh, but as Millicent would have been the first to tell you had not I beaten her to the punch (I defy you to try to diagram this sentence so far), few manuscript submissions contain surprises that are actually surprising to a professional reader. Partially, as we discussed earlier in the week, this is the fault of the pervasiveness of the Idiot Plot in TV and film, of course, but it also seems that many aspiring writers confuse an eventuality that would come out of the blue from the point of view of the character experiencing it with a twist that would stun a reader.

Again, it all depends upon the writing. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?) At the risk of espousing a radical new form of manuscript critique, I’m a big fan of allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions — and of trusting her to gasp when the story throws her an unanticipated curve ball.

Unfortunately, many aspiring writers don’t trust the reader to catch subtle foreshadowing; they would rather hangs up a great big sign that says, HEY, YOU — GET READY TO BE ASTONISHED. That in and of itself renders whatever happens next less surprising than if it came out of the proverbial clear blue sky.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” I hear some of you inveterate foreshadowers protest, “what you say about real-life surprises isn’t always true. Plenty of people experience premonitions.”

That’s quite true, disgruntled mutterers: many folks do feel genuine advance foreboding from time to time. Others cultivate chronic worry, and still others apply their reasoning skills to the available data in order to come up with a prediction about what is likely to occur.

Do such people exist in real life? Absolutely. Should they be tromping around your manuscript, bellowing their premonitions at the tops of their gifted lungs? Perhaps occasionally, as necessary and appropriate, if their presence doesn’t relieve the reader of the opportunity to speculate on their own.

In fact, a great way to increase plot tension in a story featuring a psychic character is to show him being wrong occasionally. Mixes things up a bit for the reader.

But — correct me if I’m wrong — in real life, most of us don’t hear giant voices from the sky telling anyone who might happen to be following our personal story arcs what is going to happen to us 20 minutes hence.

To those of you who DO hear such a voice: you might want to consult a reputable psychiatrist, because the rest of us don’t lead externally-narrated lives. That six-foot rabbit who has been giving you orders is lying to you, honey.

If we were all subject to omniscient third-person narration at the most startling moments of our lives, Tommy wouldn’t have let that bear get the drop on him, would he? Unfortunately, as handy as it would have been had a talking vulture been available to warn him about the nearby hungry beast, that doesn’t happen much in real life.

Again: if you DO find that your life starts being narrated on the spot by a talking vulture, you might want to seek some professional help.

From the professional reader’s point of view, heavy-handed foreshadowing on the page is rather like having a tone-deaf deity bellow driving instructions from somewhere up in the clouds. Yes, that constant nagging might well cause Millicent to avoid driving into that rock five miles down the road — but, time-strapped girl that she is, I’m betting that the warning is more likely to convince her to stop driving on that road altogether, rather than hanging on for the now-predictable ride.

Okay, so that wasn’t one of my better metaphors; darn that noisy vulture for distracting me.

Nice to be chatting about craft again, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

5 Replies to “The Short Road Home, part VI: Tommy! Watch out for that bear lurking at the end of the scene! Tommy!”

  1. Thanks so much, Anne, for the examples and the clarification. Great timing for me! I’m beginning Draft #3 of my memoir, and will pay attention to any instances of foreshadowing. It’s so good that you have an “in” with Millicent. Otherwise, how would we know how annoying this device can be to her?

    1. You’re welcome, Susan — thanks for the terrific question. And best of luck with the revision!

      I wish I could claim a psychic connection with Millicent, but actually, if one spends any amount of time at writers’ conferences — especially if it’s in the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from such a shindig — one hears Millicent’s bosses holding forth on their pet peeves all the time. Nursing a club soda with lime for an hour at an adjacent table tends to be quite the crash course in how submissions are processed.

  2. I totally agree with this as a rule. However, not too long ago I began a story with the following sentence:

    “It was the morning after my boyfriend told me he wanted to seek freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ that I decided to knit the brain.”

    It acts as a summary not just of the scene to come but of the first half of the story, and yet, like Darcy, I have not yet learnt to condemn it.

    But then again perhaps the summary itself creates suspense, in that the reader is dying to know (I hope the reader is dying to know) what the two actions have to do with each other.

    1. I’m mostly dying to know how one knits a brain, Dr. F, so I’m not the best authority on whether this is the sentence that tests the rule. Speaking from what caught my eye most, if I saw this on a page, I would probably lobby for taking out the passive elements and moving the shocker up front:

      I decided to knit the brain on the morning after my boyfriend told me he wanted to seek freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.

      But that’s just me.

      I had to laugh, though, at the aptness of your comment as I’m re-reading THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, to see if it really was as good as I’d remembered it. (And, I’ll admit it, to see if my residual annoyance that the movie made one of the two female characters weak almost to the point of being simple-minded and eliminated the other altogether. Which would have been less surprising if John Irving hadn’t written the screenplay himself.)

      Imagine my surprise to discover that this book I’d ADORED when it first came out is positively rife with telling rather than showing (especially for the first three chapters), head-hops to an extent that would cause a first-time novelist’s manuscript to be disemboweled by Point-of-View Nazis by page 5 — and makes the rookie mistake I mentioned a couple of days ago, repeatedly referring to characters by both first and last name.

      He even does this with his PROTAGONIST. So often, in fact, that I may be forced to write a post about it, just so I may use an excerpt.

      I know that Irving was trying to give the book a Dickensian feel, but not having re-read it since I started editing professionally, it honestly is jarring to see — to the extent that I would not consider allowing one of my clients to send out a first novel in its narrative style. It would just be too hard to sell in the current market.

      Not to mention the fact that the book’s representation of JANE EYRE is quite inaccurate. Still, it’s a great book.

      All of which just goes to show yet again that the published work of an established writer, especially one writing in the mid-80s, is not necessarily the best indicator of what an agent or editor might want to see today from a first-timer.

  3. If Tommy was a real super brat, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to allow the bear to eat him twice! I’ve known some people like that, and I think we all have. Or do.

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