Tag Archives: reader expectations

And the Morning Sky was Red: The Art of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing increases dramatic tension within a novel. It builds anticipation, adds suspense, and drops hints to readers. With small details we can indicate that things could go wrong. Sometimes those things do. Sometimes not. The point of foreshadowing is to help keep readers interested.

There are a few things to be aware of when foreshadowing:

  • Don’t be overly obvious. Heighten expectations, but keep readers guessing. You can also mislead readers (as long as it’s justified) by making them believe that one thing will happen, when something else actually occurs. For instance, instead of person A shooting person B, person A shoots himself.
  • Don’t break your promises to readers. When you foreshadow that something big is going to happen, you can’t back out. For example, if you lead readers to believe that a major character will escape death, readers will be disappointed, and probably mad, if you kill off that character.

There are many ways to foreshadow effectively. Here’s a list of some of the ways:

  • Name a coming event. Not the most subtle technique, but by naming an event and indicating why it’s going to be problematic, readers will anticipate the upcoming event, and will want to see how it’ll play out.
  • Use symbolism. Something as simple as “the leaves fell early that year” (A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway) implies something is going to happen. Having a group of kids playing “Ring Around the Rosie” could be another sign. What’s great about symbolism is it can be very subtle. The character(s) may not pick up on the foreshadowing, but readers will.
  • Prophecies. In real life, a lot of people don’t believe in crystal balls, horoscopes, and the like. But in novels, nothing is meaningless. If something is included in a book, it’s important.
  • Apprehension. Describing someone as sweaty or tense, or with shaking limbs, or having an uneasy look all indicate to readers that a big event is about to occur. Seeing that the characters are apprehensive, will make readers apprehensive.

Foreshadowing allows us to guide readers’ expectations. It helps us to prepare them for what’s to come. Heavy foreshadowing is used for the biggest events within the novel. This type of foreshadowing starts early on in the book and continues throughout, until the major event. Light foreshadowing is used for smaller events, and can be used to “poke” readers, reminding them that the big event you foreshadowed in the first chapters is finally about to happen.

Just remember not to go overboard with foreshadowing. Let the reader do the work. (Readers are usually very good at interpreting information and reading between the lines. They’ll get bored if you point out every little thing to them.)

What do you think of foreshadowing?

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The Unexpected: Plot Twists

Plot twists create intrigue. They give readers that thrill that keeps them reading. However, creating a good plot twist isn’t as simple as wanting one.

There are ways to help you create plot twists that satisfy readers.

Know Your Characters

Your plot and characters are not separate. Having your characters do certain actions only for the sake of moving the plot forward (such as to get two characters to break up) can make your characters seem like they’re going through the motions instead of living them.

Interesting plot twists emerge from your characters. They match up with character personalities and echo out from their pasts (because our past experiences do effect our present selves).

If you know your characters, they often become real to you and start adding to the story as if they are dictating what you should write. This is a good thing. It means that your characters’ actions will be consistent with their personalities and past experiences. This makes them believable, which may mean what you originally envisioned for the plot doesn’t work anymore. But what arises from this writing may be the thrilling plot twist you needed.

Reader Expectations

There are certain aspects of novels that people expect, and are what happens. The hero has to face many, increasingly difficult challenges. There’s a monumental climax often involving a life or death situation or decision. But in the end, things work out or there’s at least hope of things working out.

So, how can we make a novel interesting when what readers expect is what usually happens? We present the scenes and actions in ways readers don’t expect.

Look at your plot and find what outcomes are obvious. Then, search for ways to add a twist. Some ways to help think up twists:

  • Brainstorm: Free thinking to see what you come up with. This can help you find ideas that aren’t completely obvious and aren’t so far out in left field that they are utterly impossible.
  • Make things worse: Find ways/situations that will injure your protagonist physically and emotionally.
  • Unveil a secret: Disclosing information that relates to the problem at hand can surprise readers. If done right, it can uncover what’s really going on or add a new layer that was previously unexpected.
  • Expose a character: Unanticipated betrayals and liars alter readers’ expectations, especially if the betrayal comes from someone the protagonist trusts.

Flip Your World View

Really good plot twists change the way your protagonist sees the world. Create a sense of foreboding or have the protagonist see another character as mean, and then turn the foreboding into relief and have the mean character end up being a nice guy.

Realistic Surprises

The most effective plot twists aren’t totally predictable and don’t come out of the blue. Think about surprising with the familiar. When the readers get to the end of the book, they can go back and see little, subtle hints placed throughout the novel directing them toward the true ending. They typically won’t see these hints until after they finishing reading the novel, but they can go back and say, “I should have seen that coming.”

Lay your groundwork so that things don’t pop out of nowhere. Groundwork allows for indirect hints, so that when the ending comes it’s not without some warning.

Some Examples Of Novels With Great Plot Twists:

  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  • My Sister’s Keeper and Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

In the end, you’ll give readers what they didn’t expect, but in a way that delights them.