Before I start, I've been worrying about this: If you’ve asked me a question on the blog and I’ve said that I put it on my list but I never seem to get to it, please remind me. I work on three computers and my fear is that I may fail to transfer a question to all the computers and then it may get overwritten. If this has happened to you, sorry!
On March 5, 2011, Piper wrote, ...I was wondering if you could write a post on how to write beginnings... I rewrite mine about a thousand times...
Piper, when I promised you a post, I forgot that I’d already written one on the subject. My post of November 3, 2010, is all about beginnings, and two chapters of Writing Magic are devoted to the subject. I suggest you look in both places. Then, if you have more specific questions, please post them.
However, I do want to respond to the rewriting part of your question. A thousand times is too many! A hundred times is too many. If you keep revising before going on to the rest of your story, you may be making extra work for yourself. You may not know what the beginning needs to be until you reach the end. If you do finish and go back and find yourself polishing and polishing and never feeling satisfied, put your story aside for a month - or a week, if you can’t bear to wait a month - and then see what you think. You may discover that your beginning works just fine.
Moving along to the next question, on March 6, 2011, Kitty wrote, ...I was wondering if you had any advice on foreshadowing? I feel like the slight hints that I drop are too obvious or so slight that no one picks up on them, but I'm not sure how to make them less obvious.
My beloved writing teacher, who taught a workshop that I took again and again, disliked foreshadowing, so I eschew it. If Bunny (my teacher) was against it, so was I.
However, to answer the question, I have to consider and reconsider.
First of all, as usual, if you can make foreshadowing work, go for it.
Second, many great books, especially old books, classics even, use foreshadowing. You might see something like, Dear Reader, if I had known in 1842 what I now know in 1862, I never would have entered the Tea Emporium on that fateful July day.
If you’re writing an old-fashioned story in an old-timey voice, foreshadowing may be perfect.
And foreshadowing can be funny if you want to be funny. Take the example above: Dear Reader, if I had known in 1842 what I now know in 1862, I never would have entered the Tea Emporium on that fateful July day. You can add: I would have been spared many sleepless nights and a right earlobe the size of a grapefruit. Sprinkle silly foreshadowing in at regular intervals and the reader will be looking for it and laughing in advance.
Where the problem comes in is when we foreshadow to prop up a dull part of our story. It’s tempting. Things are going slow right now, but I’m letting you know that the action is going to pick up. The main character is eating a PBJ sandwich. Ordinary, right? We don’t want the reader to get bored so we tell her that there will be dire consequences later. However, we want to keep the story interesting in the present moment, not through foreshadowing but through the ordinary devices of good storytelling: characters the reader cares about, tension between characters, a difficult goal, a terrible situation.
Also, foreshadowing takes the reader out of the immediate moment and makes her aware of the narrator. If the book is told by a first-person main character, foreshadowing reminds the reader that the narrator isn’t participating in events as they unfold but looking back on them. Sometimes this is okay, but sometimes the foreshadowing is an interruption.
There are many ways of suggesting future trouble without foreshadowing. In both Ella Enchanted and Fairest, gnomes can see into the future, although dimly, and in both books they prophesy for the main character. The prophesies make the reader worry about the future without interrupting the action. Dreams, too, can augur ill. If I remember right, dreams are used effectively in Gone With the Wind. It’s a bad sign when Scarlet O’Hara dreams of a child.
However, you don’t need portents or dreams to worry the reader. The most mundane events can do it. For example, Ron Banks-Butler is talking to Hallie Butler, his older cousin, who’s two grades ahead of him in high school. Hallie asks him who he has for History. Here’s the dialogue:
Ron says, “Mr. Twillet. Is he good?”
“Good? Twillet doesn’t know what good means, and he has it in for kids with two last names.”
“What does he do to them?”
“Ron, you don’t want to know. It will just give you nightmares.”
Or Clara is boarding an airplane in winter. The pilot announces that they have to wait while the ground crew de-ices the wings. Finally the plane begins to taxi, but Clara sees out her window a slick patch on the wing. She’s sure it’s ice. When she points the patch out the patch to the flight attendant, he tells her everything is fine.
If you are a devoted foreshadower and are having withdrawal symptoms even thinking about changing your method, stick with what you’re doing. But when you’ve finished your first draft, try deleting the foreshadowing as you revise. If the story is better with it, put it back in. Otherwise, leave it out.
Kitty, I’d stay away from the obvious hints and, if you’re going to foreshadow at all, be subtle. Trust your reader. She’ll catch more than you expect, and even if she misses your hint she’ll understand as events unfold.
∙ Ron is eating that PBJ sandwich. By the time he goes to bed at night a vampire will have sucked the life out of his great uncle who is right now asleep in the den. Without foreshadowing, convey to the reader that disaster lurks.
∙ Clara is on her way to school. It’s an ordinary day. She likes the school, has friends, has studied for her French quiz. Using a different method from the prompt above, show the reader that this will not be an ordinary day, but don’t foreshadow. After you’ve done that, find yet another way to suggest future problems.
∙ Write the first page of a story about a child who lives in a quiet house deep in the countryside. Use foreshadowing to achieve an old-fashioned voice.
∙ Hallie’s cousin has just died in a harrowing way. The death is the start of Hallie’s troubles. Use foreshadowing to make the tragedies funny. Pile dire prediction on dire prediction.
Have fun, and save what you write!