Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The "How Could I Not See That Coming" Moment

Subtlety is a difficult thing to accomplish in writing. How do you convey something important about a character by showing/not telling and be sure that the reader will catch on? How do you hint at a disturbed past without going into detail?

A use of subtlety that I'm most interested in is foreshadowing, a common technique in mystery fiction. I was reading the short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger last night and was struck by the simple, but impacting construction of it. He made it clear early on that something bad would happen. Then mid-way he stilled my fears by a delightful, heartwarming scene. But the third part happened quickly and made me feel foolish for forgetting about the first scene. It was a "how could I not see that coming" moment. While this is hardly the best or most complex example, it still worked.

The key is to not trick the reader. This should not be a deus ex machina. There should be an element of shock to the reader, but also an "Ah HA" aspect as well. They should then remember past elements of the book/story and realize that you planned this. "Bananafish" would not have worked had the first scene not been there. There would have been no reason for the end to happen the way it did. (I'm trying not to give away too much, but everyone should find this story and read it.)

That kind of foreshadowing is what I'd like to be able to produce in "Red Truck." Actually, I'm trying for two types of the subtlety. In parts, I want the reader to be aware of things that Margie, my tragedy, is not and later her feel foolishly for not seeing it. In other ways, I want the traditional type of foreshadowing, where I leave hints here and there to lead up to the end. I'm going to try to keep my eyes open for this kind of subtlety in my reading here on out.

I'm so close to finishing the first draft. I'm quite a slow writer. I think I'm thinking too much about revision to finish. There is just too much going on: job applications, working, magazine reading, other reading. Hopefully, the next post will be about the finishing of the first draft and the beginning of revision. Oh, how I love revision!


  1. This is definately a hard part of writing. I think usually a writer's tendency is to make things too obvious, because we want to make sure our reader's get it. I struggle with leaving the clues subtle and trusting my reader's intellect. Here's also where getting someone to read the work can help, as their comments can show where revision is needed. Happy writing (and revising)!

  2. Thanks for the encouragement. I will definitely get some readers. It's so hard to know when you're being too obvious.