11.05.2020

Leading Statements

Anyone familiar with TV or films knows the device that directors use to foreshadow an event. A single short shot of someone doing something in a locale out of sequence is sufficient to convey that the story will go in that direction. The idea has been copied by novelists, with varying degrees of success. 

Its least effective use is as a chapter-ending line. “They had no idea they were heading for catastrophe” is a typical example. It is a cheap trick that is reviled by most readers. The irritation is doubled when the line is placed at the end of a chapter in which nothing much happened. You can almost see the writer thinking, “Gosh, the chapter is so flat. Let’s throw in a zinger.” The correct solution, of course, is to rewrite the chapter so it does advance the drama.

The author is not wrong in one regard, though. A single sentence can set a reader’s mind whirring. If a detective tells their boss, “I sure wish the killer hadn’t wiped the hard drive,” the reader is immediately alerted. Hold it a second, computer techs can recover wiped hard drives. So then the direction has been signaled without its feeling cheap. In fact, a single sentence can be appended to the end of that chapter: “We’ll send this to the IT guys to find out what’s on that hard drive.” A single-sentence clue, a knock-on promise. 

This sort of linkage can be more effective when you place a single statement in two different plot lines. This might be deemed the call and response method. If in one chapter a Middle Eastern villain states that the method of attack will be a car bomb, you might then in a later chapter have a police chief remind their squad that enemy forces liked to use car bombs in Iraq. Now suspense has been created by mere juxtaposition.

The device works most effectively when the talk is shortly backed by action. Dramatic emphasis depends largely on length of coverage of a topic. So a single sentence runs the danger of being trampled in the reader’s memory by subsequent waves of better-covered events. You can let the sentence hang for a while, as a beckoning promise, but within a few chapters more meat should be provided. Actions speak louder than words. The police chief should be proven right, to however limited degree, by the Middle Eastern villain visiting, say, a pool equipment store to buy an ingredient for the promised bomb. A single-sentence clue, a payoff for the attention.

Exercise: With any plot-driven book, you can draw up a list of the points that you want to foreshadow. Then place the single lines in strategic locations: a few chapters beforehand, or a string of them at 30-page intervals. Choose scenes with the individuals involved and drop in the line as a natural segue from what they are already discussing. Unobtrusive hints can do wonders.

“The pleasure lies not in the cookies, but in the pattern the crumbs make when the cookies crumble.”  —Michael Korda

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.