*SPOILER* This blog post ends with a question! *END SPOILER*
I try to read a lot, and since I have a full time job, a lot of that reading is done through audiobooks. I am currently listening to Stephen King’s Duma Key (good book, btw) and noticed there are ‘spoilers’ littered throughout. Call me whatever, but I actually think they were easier to notice because of the eyes-off medium. Then again, maybe it’s just the result of a damn good reader. Either way, what I mean by ‘spoilers’ is that King will drop sneak peaks to pretty significant plot points several pages before it actually happens. For example, there may be a scene between father and daughter, with everything happy-happy-smile-smile, then the last sentence of the chapter (in its own paragraph, of course): ‘He would never see her again.’
Before I continue, let it be clear that this is not the first time I’ve witnessed glimpses into the future in books. It’s a fairly common practice, something I’ve seen in novels all my life, but what does it do for the reader? Why is it used?
Well, let’s give it a name first. How about foreshadowing? That’s cool…but when I hear that word I think of my old High School Literature class and discussing a few lines of Shakespeare for anywhere between 1 and, oh….102 hours. For this blog post, when I say ‘foreshadowing,’ I’m really talking about spoilers. When the author tells you what’s going to happen, just to eff with you. And you love it.
Let’s look at a more concrete example. From Peter Straub’s Ghost Story:
Elmer Scales…sat up three nights in a row by his living-room window, holding a loaded twelve-gauge shotgun across his knees… He could not possibly have foreseen or understood what he would be doing with that shotgun in two months’ time. Walt Hardesty, who would have to clean up Elmer’s mess, was content to take things easy…
Not to spoil too much, but 200 or so pages later, Elmer had his ‘mess.’ So what was the point Mr. Straub? What prompted you to even put that in there if you weren’t going to write about it until half a novel later?
Letting your reader know a character’s fate far before it happens will do a few things, both good and bad. For one, all in-between writing involving that character will be put in to a different context. The reader will be looking for signs, reasons, and justifications for what’s on the horizon. Their brain’s will also be in overdrive trying to guess just exactly what’s going to happen. Whenever Elmer Scales (a character with a relatively small role) made his way back in to the writing, my attention went up. I became extra aware of his actions and his surroundings, because this man with a shotgun was supposed to make one hell of a mess and–dammit!–I wanted to see it! It’s like being in a haunted house for the first time but someone gave you a map of where all the scares are. Before every marked corner, you’re going to approach with caution, desperate to identify any hints to what kind of ghoul or creature you’re about to face.
Foreshadowing in this way also sparks that fairy-tale loving part of us, that part that wants everything to turn out ‘happily ever after’. We know someone is about to die (hell, the author just told us!) but we still hold on to that slim possibility that we read wrong, that things can and will turn out differently, all the way up until the fingers turn all cold. In this Elmer Scales example, this wasn’t necessarily true, but for situations where the future victim is well-liked, you have that natural anxiety. It’s a nice effect that keeps lights on and pages turning.
Of course, like any unorthodox technique, it is a gamble. There’s a reason internet brats who make it their full time job to spoil movies/books/video games for people are considered internet brats. People don’t like the spoilers and would sometimes rather come to the conclusion themselves. Additionally, what’s the incentive to read if you know how everything will turn out? Ever read a good book that started with ‘In 6 months all of the main characters will be dead.’ I thought not
Since I am using the term, I might as well touch on the more traditional connotation of ‘foreshadowing.’ Besides, not everything in this extravagant world is shot in our faces, spelled out in neat little letters on our kitchen tables while we have our morning cup of coffee. Foreshadowing can be a subtlety, an image, even as simple as the one fitting piece at the end of a set of coordinated events. Remember that the root of fiction’s difference from truth is one indisputable characteristic: fiction is made up. An occurence in real life has no one behind the pen calling the shots, so life can be filled with both significant happenings and those that hold no relevance at all for the future. Fiction doesn’t work like that. Everything between the covers is there for a reason–or, rather, should be there for some reason. This means that if something sticks out to you in chapter one that isn’t immediately addressed. you should expect to see that little detail come back around for a proper 15 min of fame.
These types of foreshadowing leave a greater sense of mystery for the reader and can add an extra layer of fun during that second read-through. In the end, though, it’s all about style and preference. So, dear readers who are also writers, please share your thoughts on ‘spoilers’ and ‘foreshadowing’ in fiction. Good techniques? Cheap? Annoying? Brilliant.
Inquiring minds want to know.