Over the past couple of posts, as I was making the case for setting up necessary character plot development well before it is needed to explain what’s going in a particular scene — or, heaven help us, the climax of the book — I made passing reference to what I like to call Plot Flares, an early screaming indication that something specific is going to happen later in the story.
Except, I now notice, I never managed to call them by name — so much for my clever plan to refer back to the concept a week or two hence, eh? And now that it occurs to me to check, I realize that I haven’t actually written a post on Plot Flares since sometime in 2006.
This is one of the dangers of blogging so much, you know: the archives start to blur in the blogger’s mind. I’ll be writing along, minding my own business, when all at once a side issue pops to mind. “Oh, I don’t need to attend to that now,” I mutter to myself, resolutely pushing it to the back of my mind for another year. “I blogged about that only a couple of months ago.”
Except it will turn out to have been a couple of years ago. So if I start throwing around terminology more recent readers don’t recall, please don’t hesitate to ask what the heck I’m talking about, okay?
So: plot flares. Once again, this is a phenomenon familiar to all of us from movies: the eventual startling plot twist is revealed in some small way within the first twenty minutes. If the heroine is going to have to shoot the villain at the climax as her Own True Love lies bleeding and weapon-free, for instance, she will almost invariably make a statement about her (a) loathing for guns, (b) aversion to violence, and/or (c) having witnessed some incredibly graphic murder during her formative years during the first act.
Ostensibly so we poor viewers can understand why anyone might have an aversion to, say, picking up a gun and shooting someone in cold blood or some other hard-to-grasp concept like that.
In novels, creative nonfiction, and memoirs, foreshadowing of the denouement often happens within the first 50 pages — or even the first chapter. Heck, it’s not all that uncommon for an actual SCENE of the climax to open the book as a prologue, with the plot jumping backward in time immediately thereafter to figure out how our hero ended up there.
Or, to put it in cinematic terms: “Rosebud.”
From the author’s POV, these hints are generally subtle, mild foreshadowing of events to come. As character development and background, small hints are often advisable, or even unavoidable. If these hints aren’t AWFULLY subtle, though, they can give away the rest of the book, deflating suspense as surely as helium comes out of a balloon when you jab a needle into it.
And to professional readers, who see every plot twist in the book, so to speak, on a literally daily basis, a poorly-done foreshadowing hint glows in the middle of a page like a flare set up around a midnight highway accident: don’t go there.
There are, of course, the classics common to both the silver screen and the printed page: if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she’s going to turn out to be pregnant; if any man announces that he’s counting the days until retirement, he’s going to be killed (and, heaven help us, “Danny Boy” will be played on the soundtrack); if our hero is a sad guy, he will inevitably turn out to have had a beautiful (and often, in the flashback, silent) wife and possibly cherubic child who were slaughtered before his eyes while he watched, helpless.
And it’s not just lowbrow entertainment that embraces this strategy. These clichés transcend genre or even writing quality: that last example about the dead wife and child was the backstory for both half the action films Charles Bronson ever made and the Sidney Poitier character in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (courtesy of a car crash), as well as for the Antonio Banderas character in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (courtesy of Bad Men with Guns). It gets around.
The list of such common plot flares is practically endless. In a television detective story, the actor with the best résumé (who therefore cost more than the other players) will turn out to be the murderer; so will Ray Liotta, John Malkevich, Ice-T, and/or Christopher Walken — unless, of course, the directors have elected to incorporate what I like to call the Liotta Lapse, where they use an actor so habitually typecast as the guy you’re SUPPOSED to think did it, so the twist can be that someone else did.
Actually, I’ve always found it rather amusing that people in the movie industry continue to think that we’re all surprised by plot twists set up three miles in advance — in manuscripts, these cliché set-ups tend to be dismissed in the first read-through. I once attended a memorable preview of a forgettable thriller where one of the actors, unfortunately, had shown up to speak to the audience. A fairly well-known TV actor, he swore up and down that the first time he had read the script, he was stunned by the eventual plot twist.
When several audience members laughed uproariously (including, I’ll admit it, your humble narrator), the actor was unwise enough to ask us why. I spoke up: “Because ten minutes into the film, someone mentioned that the guy who turned out to be the murderer ‘had a tough childhood.’ The screenwriter might as well have erected a road sign with a big arrow that read ‘psychopath here.'”
The actor looked at me as if I had just spontaneously derived the theory of relativity from scratch on the spot. “I didn’t catch that,” he claimed, straight-faced.
Now, because I prefer for the sake of the republic to assume that most adults are reasonably intelligent, I assume the actor was lying about his own perceptions in order to protect his film from the all-too-deserved charge of predictability. For such a cause, I can cut him some slack.
However, in book form, agents, editors, and contest judges tend not to cut the author of a manuscript any slack at all. Remember, these are not charitable readers, as a rule, but business-oriented ones. They’re looking for plot twists that are genuinely surprising, not set up by plot flares a hundred pages in advance.
And that’s a problem, because most aspiring writers just LOVE foreshadowing.
Keep your foreshadowing, when you use it, SUBTLE — which means, of course, that unless you’re writing comedy, you might want to avoid having characters say of your politician protagonist in early childhood scenes, “That Harry! Some day, he’s going to be president.”
Um, can anyone out there give me even one good reason that a professional reader like me SHOULDN’T regard this as a glaring instance of telling, rather than showing?
Because it is, to my eye: the author has chosen to tell the reader point-blank that Harry has the qualities that would lead one to expect him to be president, rather than showing him exhibiting the individual characteristics through action.
Ultimately, that’s often the writerly motivation for inserting plot flares, I think: the author doesn’t trust that the reader is going to be able to figure out the irony…or the pathos, or the twist to come. Instead, try letting the circumstances lead naturally to dramatically satisfying conflicts and resolutions, rather than sending up plot flares every few pages to make sure that the reader is following along with the point.
As a writer, I have to assume that every one of my potential readers is as sharp as I am at picking up those clues. Admittedly, I was the person in the theatre who whispered to my date fifteen minutes into THE SIXTH SENSE, “Why aren’t any of the adults consulting with Bruce Willis about the kid’s case? Totally unrealistic, either in the school system or with the parent. He’s gotta be a ghost,” so we’re talking a rather high bar here, but I like plot twists that make readers gasp ALOUD.
If the reader’s been alerted by a flare, that gasp is never going to come, no matter how beautifully the revelation scene is set up. At most, the reader will have a satisfied sense of having figured the twist out in advance.
Keep it subtle, my friends. If there’s a cat in that bag, keep it there until it’s startling for it to pop out. There’s no need to have it meowing all the time first.
Keep up the good work!
PS to those of you currently residing in California: FAAB Joel Derfner is going to be giving readings from his new book, SWISH, in the week to come. If you live in the LA or San Francisco areas, drop by and say hi. Because, really, the primary reason for anyone to go to an author reading is to talk about ME, right?
Seriously, Joel has a lot of interesting things to say about the publication process, so this would be a tremendous opportunity to ask questions not only about how to become the gayest person ever, but about writerly concerns.
Monday, May 19, 7:30-9:00 pm — West Hollywood, CA
A Different Light, 8853 Santa Monica Boulevard
Tuesday, May 20, 7:30-9:00 pm — Long Beach, CA
Barnes & Noble, 6326 East Pacific Coast Highway
Thursday, May 22, 7:30-9:00 pm — San Francisco, CA
Books, Inc. in the Castro, 2275 Market Street