Surprise is the lifeblood of story.
In Maximizing your Turns, I talk a bit about foreshadowing your turns—actually foreshadowing the opposite of your turns to make them more dramatic.
But what about a more basic approach to surprises?
If you’re thinking foreshadowing (warning or indicating a future event) may seem completely contradictory to a Surprise (an unexpected event). Don’t worry, you’re not crazy, it is.
So the question arises, can you and should you do both?
Foreshadowing a Turn
When I watch a lot of movies, I often lean over to my girlfriend and say, “that dude right there, is gonna kill that other dude there, at the end of the movie.” Yeah I’m that guy.
At the end of the movie, the guy almost always kills the other guy. How did I know? Did I tap my vast Professor X abilities? Did I see the first draft of the script? No. I just know story mechanics and it’s easy for me to pick up on foreshadowing, especially the Chekhov’s Gun stuff.
The point is, YES, for people paying attention. Foreshadowing does or at least can lessen the impact of your later turns.
However, not everybody’s a story snob like me.
In fact… most people aren’t.
So giving a clue, will more often than not, work in setting up (and strengthening) your turn, rather than diffusing it. Whenever things connect narratively, especially events separated by story-time, they generally carry more weight, making more sense, seeming more viable, and overall making the narrative feel true.
If you really want it to be effective, deliver your foreshadowing within context of something else.
When you’re working with Foreshadowing, it’s time to put on your Harry Houdini hat.
You want to introduce the element you’re foreshadowing, while calling attention to something else. The reader sees it. Understands it. But doesn’t have time to do what I normally do while watching a movie, put the pieces of the puzzle together.
While you now know a more effective approach in foreshadowing your turns, the question still arises, should you? Or to put it another way, how do you know what’s more valuable to the story—connecting the events narratively with context OR delivering events out of the blue, for a complete and total surprise.
It’s a bit of a case-by-case basis, but here’s a couple of things to keep in mind, to help you out.
If you can deliver your surprise, without any foreshadowing and your readers can easily make the leap to connect it contextually. Your surprise has strong legs to stand on, without foreshadowing.
But in contrast, if your surprise creates confusion or questions in the readers mind. If it STOPS them, forcing them to dwell on how whatever it is that just happened, happened, your surprise should be foreshadowed.
Let’s do an example;
I was just watching Rocky Balboa last night, so let’s use that as an example.
Rocky Balboa is about old retired rocky, getting back into the ring for one last fight. While it’s clear Rocky is older in the movie, I think they say 50’s (though Stallone was 60ish when he shot it), they never really develop or foreshadow any issues with his health. In fact, the opposite, he passes his physical for the boxing board, with flying colors.
Now if somewhere during the movie, one of Rocky’s hands were to break as a story turn. The reader can instantly make the leap, well it’s old Rocky, it makes sense his old bones can’t take the pounding anymore. No foreshadowing is needed.
You don’t need a scene where Rocky does an x-ray and the doctor tells him his bones won’t hold up to the fight… or a scene where Rocky, is training but the pain in his bones is so bad he has to stop.
Conversely, let’s rewind to the very first Rocky from the 70s, when Rock was in his prime.
If we executed this same premise, Rocky’s hand just breaks while training or fighting, wait a second… Boxers hands just don’t typically break. Where the heck did that come from?
This is a turn that stops the flow of the narrative, giving birth to questions and confusion. It demands foreshadowing to seem plausible.
Maybe Rocky has a rare bone disorder.
Maybe Rock keeps training the wrong way, despite Mickey’s guidance he needs to stop twisting his wrist…
Get one of those scenes in there, and the narrative no longer stops when young Rocky breaks his hand. The reader is able to connect the dots and make the leap without any second thoughts.
Potent surprises are required for your to be effective. When you inject turns into your narrative, make sure the reader isn’t going to be stumped. If you think there’s a chance they won’t follow the line, go back and foreshadow. Remember this, and I promise your readers will be on their toes and more engaged with your writing. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.