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"Bolt out of the Blue": How to get the audience to accept the improbable?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Logos&Eidos, Nov 25, 2016.

  1. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Actually, I'm listening to the podcast again and it covers a ton of what has been brought up in this thread. I highly suggest it.
  2. Jackarandajam

    Jackarandajam Troubadour

    There are countless different surprises in any story; revealing who a character is, revealing how a crime was committed, revealing a death, revealing a survival. Not every surprise should have a foreshadowing; I don't think anyone is arguing that.
    I think the real question is: are you putting your reader through something boring, hoping they'll stick around for the bomb?
    Similar to the Hitchcock quote earlier, I heard one recently that has been on my mind for this rewrite:
    "Put the cat in the oven before you describe the kitchen."

    Same scenario; Writer describes kitchen for two paragraphs (reader scanning for something interesting), and then a guy throws a live cat in the oven and cranks it to 400f (hopefully they're still reading),
    A guy throws a live cat in the oven and cranks it to 400f (whaaa??!?!),
    Writer describes kitchen at their leisure, enjoying full reader interest.

    The writer might adore their kitchen description, but that isn't necessarily enough for a reader.
  3. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Jackarandajam, that relates somewhat to something I've been thinking since psychotick mentioned timing earlier in this thread, i.e. whether the bolt from the blue happens very early in the story or near the end.

    I think in cases where we use a bolt from the blue, we need to spend as much time after the surprising event showing its reverberations as we might have spent before an event when we are foreshadowing.

    If we describe foreshadowing with the metaphor of a storm brewing long before the bolt of lightning strikes, then we can describe an un-foreshadowed bolt from the blue as something like a large meteor striking the earth without warning: There's going to be a lot of fallout (scorched earth, devastation, perhaps even long-lasting climate change.)

    What doesn't seem to work is a major bolt from the blue that ends things, like deus ex machina, or many successive bolts from the blue that have no lasting effects but are merely plot contrivances quickly forgotten within a page or two.

    I think you are right. For me, an awful lot of foreshadowing is broad: a tone is being set in preparation for things to follow, or else broad future developments are being hinted but without much specificity.

    I.e., it's not about signposting a specific event or giving a reader specific clues.

    I recently purchased a used copy of Dune because, although I read it about 10 times as a teen, I'd never really studied it and I wanted to focus on learning the elements of its prose, structure and so forth in more detail. I think the first chapter opens up with some great foreshadowing:

    In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

    It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.

    The old woman was let in by the side door down the vaulted passage by Paul's room and she was allowed a moment to peer in at him where he lay in his bed.

    By the half-light of a suspensor lamp, dimmed and hanging near the floor, the awakened boy could see a bulky female shape at his door, standing one step ahead of his mother. The old woman was a witch shadow - hair like matted spiderwebs, hooded 'round darkness of features, eyes like glittering jewels.

    "Is he not small for his age, Jessica?" the old woman asked. Her voice wheezed and twanged like an untuned baliset.

    Paul's mother answered in her soft contralto: "The Atreides are known to start late getting their growth, Your Reverence."

    "So I've heard, so I've heard," wheezed the old woman. "Yet he's already fifteen."

    "Yes, Your Reverence."

    "He's awake and listening to us," said the old woman. "Sly little rascal." She chuckled. "But royalty has need of slyness. And if he's really the Kwisatz Haderach . . . well . . ."

    It's all about change. Not only is the Castle described quite specifically as "that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather," but it is an old castle, "the ancient pile of stone." And this old hag is old, with voice wheezing, with the implication that she's similar to the ancient pile of stone. She looks in on the young boy, who is the future toward which, and because of which, everything is going to change.

    There's also the dim light, the fact that boy and hag only dimly see each other across that great divide—and yet each is acutely aware of the other. For me, the "half-light of a suspensor lamp, dimmed and hanging near the floor" ties into this change: the past viewing the future and the future viewing the past, but with a great gulf between them.
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2016
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  4. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    I don't think about foreshadowing in my stories as much as creating the rules for the story world. I try to demonstrate the rules with scenes and dialogue, limiting exposition and info dumps. This allows readers to create their own expectations, which might be right or wrong. The ending of the story must adhere to the rules, but it need not be what the reader expects, creating what may feel like a bolt from the blue for readers, but also leave them satisfied with the read. If the ending of the story is basically a new rule, it may leave the reader feeling cheated. If the ending is an unexpected application of an existing rule, that's bound to be a much more satisfying read.
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  5. Logos&Eidos

    Logos&Eidos Sage

    A surprise is something that I wouldn't want the audience to know, therefore I would want it to catch people completely off guard. The only things that I would want to foreshadow would be things that I wanted the audience to know,at least in passing.

    What information about the plot needs to be given away in order to get people to go along with the ride?

    I'm not interested in surprise for the sake of surprise, If I chose to have a genuine surprise or complete shift in direction
    how would I or any writer get people to just go along with it without "foreshadowing" that they were going to happen;because
    if people are told that they are coming there is no point in having them.

    Using surprises to add to the situation in a story is well the entire point, I'm trying to figure out how to use them well.

    I have to disagree a reader,any consumers of fiction are just passive observes of the events contained with in a given work;he only active participants are those who created the work. The Documentarian and the audience that eventually views the documentary, are not the subject and have no influence or personal stake in the events with in, yet do to empathy they connect with the subject despite not being them.
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    First, the best surprises are foreshadowed. Certain surprises don't have to be. But without a real idea of what you're doing there are no answers.

    Second, whether readers are passive or active is in some ways dependent on defining those terms... but as I define them, no, readers are active participants in fiction.
  7. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    Arlington Road.

    Watch it if you haven't. That's sort of my answer to surprises and endings, and the sleight of hand that makes a reader feel truly engaged, but clobbered in the face when they realize they were watching the wrong thing. Irony.

    Okay, I'm just going to share one of my personal experiences, because I think all the conversation here is pretty thorough.

    Regarding surprises, I wrote a book in 2011 that I describe as "Dangerous Beauty" meets Assassin's Creed II. It's basically half love story and half political intrigue. I wanted to have surprises and twists, and so much poignant "discovery" happening that a reader would get to the last page and immediately want to begin reading the first page again, now that he knew what was going to happen. It was nonstop secrets and reveals. But I did a lot of foreshadowing. And I hated every second of it, because I like surprises.


    I ran into something really confusing to me. In previous novels, when my crit partners would read, they near constantly complained that I'd go chapters without anything really happening, not building tension, not deepening the mysteries, and then BAM! a secret was revealed and then another, and they had absolutely NO impact because the reader was bored and uninterested, rather than wowed by my cleverness.

    That's sort of how this topic resonates with me. And I fought this for a long time, if I'm being honest. I just didn't want to believe that my secrets and cleverness was detrimental to the stories I was trying to tell. When I worked on the novel from 2011, I rewrote chapters so many times. I had 30+ crit partners who read and helped me find the perfect amount of foreshadowing, increasing in intensity with each hint given. I had to use a lot of people because I worried that only a first-time reader would be able to give an accurate answer as to whether they were surprised, and whether they felt satisfied. It was torture. I never got it right, btw.

    But anyways, I had a good friend (who has never read the book), who listened to my complaint one day, especially about the dissatisfaction I felt over my ending (everyone lives happily ever after). He asked if I'd ever watched Arlington Road. He told me maybe I needed a better ending.

    Oh man, I SO did. And I needed better foreshadowing as well, because I've learned so much about tension and reader engagement since then, and while I love secrets more than perhaps anyone alive, they need to be carefully constructed and unleashed at the right time, in the right way, to draw maximum impact from a reader.

    However, that being said, readers are of many different personalities, and some people will love a story that literally has no foreshadowing and just surprises like bolts from the blue. But, those readers are in the serious minority. Most people like to rationalize, solve problems, pit their cleverness against a series of presented facts. Those are the people who will continue to love you if you give them the sensation they're looking to feel. They'll read you over and over. To feel that build up, slow and surprising, knowing they already KNOW the answer, but want to feel the questions again. The folks who just burst out laughing when the man attacks the women and throws her in the trunk (sorry, Penpilot, it's a good example, and I'm not picking on you at all), those people won't read your story again, because they responded to that one jolt, but can't feel it again. It's a one-time-use tool. And it's okay to use it, but know what you have, I guess is what I'm trying to say. Books that do not justify their surprises are published every day, I'm sure. Personally, to me, they're endlessly frustrating because I'm in a Choose Your Own Adventure story, where there is no right choice, and anything at all can happen. So at that point, I think to myself, who cares?

    I just outlined a rewrite of an old novel from 2006...yeah, really reaching back in the vault, now HA! Anyways, this guy is in prison, and a girl breaks him out. Originally, her motivation was that her father is practically her jailor, and she wants to live a better life, and she thinks this guy is a noble. So she expects he'll be so happy he's free, he'll marry her.

    Today, I decided that sucked, so what if she's not just a malcontent dreamer, but a spoiled adrenaline junkie? What if while they're evading the law, they keep running into trouble because of a string of bad luck and a rash of crime? What if it takes half the novel before the MC catches on that the law isn't following them because of HIM, but because of HER? What if her real reason for breaking him out was because she wanted a partner in crime, someone with more experience? Someone who could get done the things she couldn't, and who would teach her the trade. So, I wouldn't want that to be too guessable when they set out, fresh from the jailbreak. Of course I think she should keep her motivation a secret for a time. But because of the nature of the danger (he thinks the law is after him), it shouldn't be too obvious. It should feel like Arlington road in a way. The reader should believe he's running and it makes sense for the law to be following. But I want it to be dramatic in the moment when he discovers WHY their problems are one step behind them, and also dramatic when he has to make a choice to leave the lying little wretch to fend for herself, or whether he'll help her get out of trouble, even though it would be easier for him to just cut his losses.

    Secrets are awesome, but you have to think about how to get the impact and response you want with them.
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  8. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    Okay, I think I'm confused by the original question, now. A bolt from the blue is something completely unexpected, something I view as unrelated. Let me give an example.

    Johnny is in love with this girl, and for seven chapters, he's been pursuing her, and then they go out and it's awesome, and they become boyfriend-girlfriend. But then he sees her talking to his best friend, and in the next chapter, he yells at her and she backs off, telling him he's too intense for her.

    A couple more chapters of Johnny trying to get over the girl, but by then, he realizes he was a jerk and he wants her back. But it's the last day of school, and the next morning, she's leaving to spend the summer break to visit her grandmother in Australia. So he has only a few hours to win her back.

    He runs down the street, toward her house.

    Bolt out of the blue: And a speeding car hits him and he spends four weeks in the hospital, recovering from trauma. But after, when he sees the girl at school, they catch back up and she says he can call her.

    Bolt from the blue: And her house is on fire and the street is cordoned off, and everyone inside dies. Johnny attends the funeral...or doesn't.

    Bolt from the blue: And he just stops in the road and says, "**** that bitch!" and goes back home. There, he eats chocolate cake and starts composing a rock song that's secretly about the girl.

    Surprise and irony: And she's already gone because her plane is leaving tonight, and he's missed her. And now he can reflect on his stupidity, and move on with his life and take up basketball instead of dating. Or write letters to her all summer telling her how he loves her. Whatever.

    Surprise and irony: And when he's running, he smacks into another girl from school, and she falls over and smacks her chin on the sidewalk and has to go get stitches, and Johnny feels bad and takes her home so her parents can get her to the hospital. And he forgets about the leaving girlfriend, and does the right thing...which ends up good for him or doesn't.

    A story has to have a purpose. Whether the surprise is happening in a scene or a story, there must be a reason readers will care. If something just comes out of nowhere, it's okay, but think about what impact that thing will have. The worst kind (for me) are the "dragon Swoops Down" variety. Where the characters are in a hopeless situation. There is no way out. Enemies have them surrounded. And then the eagles dragons swoop down and everything is okay again.

    Surprises can be fine if they're not broadcasted, but it sounds to me like the emphasis is being put on "shocking" a reader. I tried to be fair with the examples I put above. NO straw men in my army. But I see it as sort of like this:

    If you want a shocking surprise, set it up to shock, and then allow the result of it to be something a reader expected. Or, reveal a secret in a way that was foreshadowed, and then let the conclusion of the surprise be the unexpected.

    I believe wholly that it is a mistake to have a bolt from the blue surprise like the dragon swooping down, and then leave the effects of that incident also in contradiction to what a reader would expect.
  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    The dragons swooping down would be suprising/ironic if previous to that the character who needed rescuing was a renowned Dragon slayer who vowed they were nothing but vermin and he wouldn't be caught dead riding one if his life depended on it. And so having to catch a ride on one would be part of his character arc, learning to trust something he so violently hated for so long.

    Then it would work.

    But it would need that earlier set up.
  10. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    CagedMaiden, to continue with your above example, how would you feel about the story if Johnny is running over to the girl's house and just before he gets hit by the speeding car, a dragon swoops down, grabs him, and carries him over to the girl's house, where he discovers she's from a portal fantasy world, which is where she's headed for the summer, rather than Australia, which was just a cover story? :)
  11. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    Yeah, see that would be an interesting concept, if a whole lot of information for a writer to be getting across to a reader all at once. If one were really serious about doing a story that had that many elements....we'll call them "off the beaten path"...unexpected wouldn't be my first choice.

    For example, in chapters 1-7, where Johnny was pursuing the girl, I'd definitely set up an expectation. I'd have his friends call the girl weird. Someone says she believes in magic, another says she's just been hanging out with the goth kids too much. They go back to playing their D&D game (and not even an immersive one at that--one of those campaigns where the players lose their shit if anything bad happens to them, and they all start complaining).

    While he's with the girl, she is nice and sweet, but distracted. Johnny gets the feeling he's second fiddle in her life. His best friend has known her forever, so he tells Johnny some non-public things about her, like that she entered a recovery program last summer, between sophomore and junior years. She doesn't talk about it, but so-and-so told him about it.

    Johnny gets doubts about his girlfriend. When he sees his friend talking to her, and they look rather close...he flips out. They break up, the friend is canned, Johnny is alone. He stews for a bit and runs into some other trouble of his own. He realizes there is something weird going on, something magical, maybe. His friend calls him to tell him the girl is leaving for Australia the day after there last day of school. Johnny has some choices to make, and no time to make them. He decides he wants her back. In the background of all this, I'd have hints about the world that exists, depending on how it existed. If there was a gateway, then things would come through. If it was a parallel dimension that covered the same physical space, I'd have hurry images of things that exist in the fantasy world show through into the real world.

    She's not there the last day of school. if Johnny skips one more class, he'll be expelled. But worse, he'll have detention that afternoon and would miss seeing her at her house before she boards her plane at 8:30pm that night...and since it's international, she'd have to leave the house by 6pm.

    Anyways, so he's running to her house, the car swerves, pulling Johnny from his thoughts, and while he is frozen in the road, a dragon swoops down and picks him up. Flies him to her house, and there she is, sitting on the porch, having witnessed the whole near-accident. She smiles and says she wondered when he would come to his senses.

    He's taken aback (not to mention shocked by the appearance of a dragon), and he notices that inside the living room, instead of a couch from the 90s and a life-size wax sculpture of Elvis, now, there's a glowing gate. She says Australia's not where she's going, but she'd like it if Johnny joined her...to meet her grandmother...in another world.

    Any idea can be written, and any event can be foreshadowed so it feels real. Even the weakest concepts can be structured so that they feel fitting. For every person who thinks one thing is really compelling and makes perfect sense, another will think the opposite is compelling and makes perfect sense. One reader wants to delve into magic-wielding character, to be impressed with cunning spells and the limitless possibilities of magic, and they're looking for something awe-inspiring. Something like magic spells whispered on the wind, that build in weather patterns and take effect unpredictable, say. Another reader thinks that's crap and totally unbelievable, and wants read about a thief who brings down an empire by stealing the crown jewels and kidnapping the king on accident. Another reader is looking for comedy, and hopes a D&D game gone wrong and a teleportation into a fantasy/game world is a hilarious story. Or someone wants to be moved by strong social commentary about race, religion, or freedom. Another reader is drawn to stories that keep rolling the ball that Tolkein started forever ago. Just give them more orcs and elves. Some other readers want to be excited by romance, repulsed by hatred, curiously satisfied by a grisly death of an antagonist. Or see themselves reflected in the main character. Basically, any plot can work, and midpoint twist, any level of foreshadowing can be applied up to a twist's reveal...but the most important thing about this whole question (if you ask me), is that the choices be made deliberately, and the resulting story be judged harshly, to make sure you aren't saving something in your story that merely amuses you, but that will satisfy readers (if the writer intends to share the work widely).
  12. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    I also think it matters where in the story the dragon swooped down as to how much had to be said to prepare the reader for it.

    If the incident occurs near the beginning of the story, it might work without much leading indications of weirdness. The dragon's swooping down might in itself be the first sign of weirdness, used as foreshadowing for lots more strange activity to come.

    If the swooping incident happens midway through the book, then as a reader I'd like to have already had some idea that strange things like that were possible. If I'd started reading because the story was touted as fantasy but nothing fantasy-based had happened in the first half of the book, I don't know if I'd keep reading to the midway point to see the dragon finally swooping down.

    If nothing fantasy-based/strange/weird occurred for 298 pages, and then suddenly the dragon swoops down and saves Johnny on page 299, with the story coming to an abrupt end on page 300, then I might throw the book at the wall or delete it from my Kindle archive. Though it's more likely I wouldn't have made it to page 298, if I were expecting the story to be in the fantasy genre. In any case, I'd most likely not be reading that author again, especially if that were my first encounter with that author's work.
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  13. First of all: I read the post about Johnny and the dragon story before reading the background of it and it was kinda cool to see how everybody put that together.

    Second: What if a bolt from the blue acts as a inciting incident (to the story or just to a new stage in plot) and is explained later, but is used as a catalyst to the story?

    When y'all were talking about foreshadowing, I thought of my own story.

    Come to think of it, my "bolt from the blue" moment isn't unforeshadowed, but it does kinda come out of nowhere.

    So, my main character is at an assassin school (long story) and she knows that the Headmistress is keeping secrets, but doesn't know what exactly the Headmistress is hiding. She decides to break into the Headmistress's office. She succeeds in doing this and ends up discovering a staircase leading to a secret room. In that secret room she discovers a boy with pure white hair, who turns out to be the Headmistress's son who she's kept a secret and locked up.

    So, this is a serious "what the heck?" moment because it doesn't solve anything or have any immediate explanation. It's just this sudden, random thing that's barely foreshadowed. It seems like an extra complication to the story and kind of irrelevant to the plot. The fact that she's keeping secrets is foreshadowed vaguely, but this couldn't have been expected by the reader at all.

    But, this is a catalyst for all the other secrets unraveling, so, does it work?

    The mysteries in this are rather slow-burn too. I'm like 15 chapters later and I still haven't revealed why the Headmistress has a son that she's kept locked up in secret, though I've hinted at it. Lots more stuff has come out, but this hasn't yet.

    This topic catches my attention because come to think of it half of what I've been writing is foreshadowing. Ive been foreshadowing a bit of my MC's backstory for the entire book and it still hasn't come into the light yet. I have to reveal so many secrets, I've had to carefully consider what hints and information to drop and how early. It can be really difficult, figuring out what is the right time or way to reveal something. For example, I was building up to a big reveal a few chapters ahead of where I am, but now the villain has spilled most of the beans (deviating from my outline) and...yeah. I keep telling myself it can all be fixed in the next draft...
  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Dragon, please listen to that podcast that I posted about irony.

    There is NOTHING wrong with surprising or shocking the reader. In fact, things SHOULD be happening on every page that makes the reader sit up and pay attention. Something to make the reader go "Oh! I never saw that coming!"

    What we are talking about though, is the concept of dramatic irony. How there should be "meaningful gap between expectations and outcome."

    Setting up reader expectations, and then subverting those expectations with something shocking is good, if it is meaningful. But setting it up and giving a shock that the reader has no investment in can be a bit of a letdown.

    I loved that CM used the eagles decending, because that is the moment that ruined LOTR for my husband. He already hated Frodo's big blue eyes staring at nothing for half the movie, but when the eagles decended to take them out of Mordor he threw his hands up and said "That's it. I'm done."

    So in the case of yours, it sounds great. It is meaningful in that it relates to what the reader has already seen. They know the headmistress is hiding something... but what? You have already set up the question in the reader's heads so that when your MC stumbles upon the boy the reader has that "Aha!" moment.

    However, if you didn't set it up in that way it might be problematic. If you set didn't set up the expectation in the reader's mind first the girl might stumble upon the boy and the reader would be confused. "Wait? Who is the boy?"

    Dramatic voice: "It's the Headmistresses son!"

    Reader: The headmistress has a son? Where did he come from?

    Dramatic voice: She's been hiding him all along!

    Reader: I don't get it, why does she have a secret son?

    You get the idea. When you foreshadow first then it builds to the dramatic moment of the reveal, adding suspense for the reader. If you don't then it can come off really anticlimactic, leaving the reader wondering WTF just happened and why they should care.
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2016
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  15. Sorry, haven't really been following this conversation in terms of reading everything thoroughly...

    I told my friend i would listen to a podcast she sent me a link to like six months ago and I NEVER DID. :(

    But i'm glad you think it sounds great. it felt pretty great writing it, lol.
  16. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    This makes me wonder about the inciting incident in my WIP My Soul to Keep. My MCs, twin siblings, start off happily celebrating their seventeenth birthday. Then on page two, BAM, the sister is killed in a drive-by shooting. No warning, no foreshadowing. Only much later is the shooter revealed as the antagonist of the story (or rather, the antagonist established throughout the story is revealed as the shooter). Is that a bad thing?
  17. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team


    Oh my goodness. I watched an episode of the office the other night that was a PERFECT example of dramatic irony.

    Watch this clip, it is 23 seconds long.

    Analysis: Ok, so obviously the viewer can't predict that Micheal is going to hit Merideth with his car. Nobody saw that coming. It is a HUGE shock, or a "bolt out of the blue."

    However, it contains loads of dramatic irony. It is meaningful because for 22 seconds before that Micheal is talking about what a great year he is having. Things are good at work, great with his girlfriend, his sales team is performing well. Anyone who watches the show knows that pretty much nothing good ever happens for Micheal, so this is really nice to see him so confident and happy... then BAM! All that is taken from him in a second. The "bolt out of the blue" is meaningful. It isn't as random as it appears.

    Now, if they had framed it differently, maybe he spent the first 22 seconds talking about how miserable he was, then hit Merideth, the response would be different. There would be no seperation between expectation and outcome.

    First scenario: He's having a great day! To, BAM! He's having a terrible day. (meaningful gap between expectation and outcome).

    Second scenario: He's having a terrible day, to, he's still having a terrible day. (No meaningful gap between expectation and outcome.)

    A third scenario might be he's driving along having a great day when a cat walks across the street wearing a top cat and spinning a baton. That would leave the view saying "WTF, that was random?" So again, not a meaningful gap between expectation and outcome.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 10, 2017
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  18. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Well, there's good foreshadowing and bad. For example, someone parks their new car next to a building where a piano is being lifted to to the tenth floor. As they get out, they say, "Gosh, I love my new car. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to it? It's the most important thing in my life."

    Everyone sees the set up here. If that piano falls on the car, everyone will say the saw it coming. Terrible foreshadowing.

    So let's not do that. Instead, they step onto the sidewalk and pause to give a wistful look back at the car and proceed to fall down a manhole and die because they were too distracted to see any of the hazard signs. The piano dropping on him would work too.

    Now there's some of that dramatic irony Helio has been talking about.

    I couldn't agree more. In my first novel, one of my main characters had this big secret that they were going to reveal near the end in a very dramatic moment. Everyone was going to gasp I thought. But I spent so much time and energy dancing around the secret, IMHO it hurt the story, all for that one moment of surprise.

    The secret was the character was dying. *Gasp* BORING.

    So, I changed things and instead revealed it early on. Sure, I lost that moment, which wasn't very good in the first place, but I gained so much more. All their actions and interactions gained something. Suddenly, I had all these great questions added to what was already there, and I delve deep into them. What does a dying man do? How do they view the world differently? How do they deal with find new love? Etc.

    Since then, I've found that revealing secrets and having characters deal with the implications to be way more interesting and impactful than keeping them.

    In your case, I think it's fine. What defines an inciting incident isn't what they find. It's the choice they make. They choose to break into the office. What they find can be anything as long as it pulls them into the story.
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  19. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    One of the masters of foreshadowing in television history is The X-Files. Husband and I are making our 4th or 5th run through the series (since the 90s) and we're currently in Season 3.

    There's an episode where Scully goes to a woman's house to question her about an alien autopsy tape that Mulder bought off the television, but the lady isn't there. Instead, Scully finds herself in a room surrounded by a group of women who claim to be abductees just like her. Towards the end of the episode, these women finally take her to see Betsy, the lady she had originally been searching for. Turns out that Betsy is dying of cancer, and both of the women speaking to Scully turn to her and say, "this is all our fates. We're all slowly dying because of the tests they're doing on us."

    A bit of a spoiler (although I don't think anyone here watches the X-Files anymore) but Scully ends up getting cancer shortly thereafter. So I thought of this conversation while watching the episode, in that foreshadowing can be something as simple as a conversation. It doesn't have to be big, it can be small, subtle, barely there. I notice it more on that show because I've seen it a million times, but in other tv shows, movies or books, I'm always like huh, clever!

    Yet I think that foreshadowing and surprises are different things. Some might disagree but I don't think there should be technical surprises in fiction. Everything should have a setup. This is why I love mystery, especially Agatha Christie who is another master at this sort of stuff. She always manages to one up me whenever I read her novels even though I can go back 50 pages and see what she did there to set something up. And then I'm like damn it! I should've known! I play a guessing game with Agatha and only once have I been right: And Then There Were None...that one was a bit easy. Besides that book, she sets up all of her mysteries with tender foreshadowing that should be freaking obvious when something pops up.

    One of Agatha's best examples comes from a book that shall go unnamed in case anyone ever reads her books here but it's about a child's murder at a Halloween party. Many more people die, killed by the same individual, who so happens to give off massive clues about being guilty in the way this person behaves when questioned about what he/she saw in the study the night the child died. The foreshadowing was the way this individual was standing...and the fact that this person had to change their clothes because they got wet...and this is precisely what Poirot uses to catch the killer. Without it, none of it would have made sense.

    It's a skill like anything else in a fiction writerly box.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 3, 2016
  20. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I've been thinking this, too, while reading this thread.

    Set-up and world building are not, per se, foreshadowing.

    But we can still set up the parameters so that when an event happens it doesn't break the world/story, even if it is shocking, surprising, and is not foreshadowed, per se.

    I'm using "per se" because the dividing line between simple world building, the creation of rule sets, and plot development (ducks in a row) on the one hand and foreshadowing on the other can blur quite a bit. Even so, I make a distinction between a) setting up a world & story development which make a later event plausible and b) using foreshadowing.

    Edit, because: For me personally, foreshadowing has a kind of additive quality. It's not actually a requirement like setting things up so that what happens later is plausible. Foreshadowing improves the tone of the story for the reader, helps to engage the reader, improves enjoyment for the reader. For instance, hitting oneself on the forehead after an event happens, thinking, Of course! There were all those signs! Or before the event, building up dread, tension, and so forth.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2016
    Heliotrope likes this.

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