Use foreshadowing to enrich your story

Sometimes as a writer you need to provide clues in a story. Mysteries, for example, center on solving a crime, such as a murder. Other genres typically involve some problem that must be addressed, and to that end usually the character must tease out the problem to understand it. Such clues can be provided by the use of foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is a hint of something to come. For example, you might note that a character who later meets an untimely end has a “grave expression” on their face.

Foreshadowing can ensure that readers won’t be disappointed when the mystery of the novel is finally revealed. The reader will remember the hint, which then makes the solution to or explanation of the mystery more plausible. Foreshadowing also can be used to provide a symbolic richness to the story. For example, John Steinbeck in “Of Mice and Men” has the character Lennie accidentally kill a mouse, a puppy, and then a woman. This hints at his own death.

This literary device can appear in a number of ways – a single word, actions by a character, the use of symbols, and so on. However used, it typically is quite subtle so as not to draw attention to itself.

The opposite of foreshadowing is the red herring, which is a hint meant to mislead readers. This frequently appears in mystery novels as figuring out who committed the crime is part of the fun of reading the novel. Closely related to foreshadowing is the flash forward, aka prolepsis, which occurs when the narrative actually jumps out of the timeline to the future.

Use caution when shifting story’s location, time

As a plot develops, you’ll often need to change locations and times in a story. Your characters may be on a journey to some destination or they may need to investigate a matter. You might shift between the characters so that a scene involves the villain who is at a different location than the protagonist.

When making such changes, always ask yourself if it is necessary to further your plot. If the change is merely done because you want to share interesting notes that you’ve researched about a new locale, then it’s probably being done for its “ooh-and-ahh” factor rather than for dramatic tension. This is a problem particularly with science fiction and action-adventure stories in which elements of the story are more about the science or wonder of a place than any useful information that advances the story.

In addition, readers can become confused if you the suddenly shift the story’s location and time. One easy way to resolve this is to leave a blank line between scenes, which experienced readers will recognize as a demarcation between scenes. In ebooks, where blank lines typically appear between paragraphs, instead use asterisks or a typographical equivalent to mark the scene change.

Regardless if a blank line or asterisks are used, most location or time switches likely require describing the new scene’s landscape, if only via a phrase or clause, simply to orient the reader. Short stories due to their brevity can’t waste words on unnecessary description that slows the drama, however. Because of this, balancing the amount of description that must be provided against the dramatic need to do so.

While setting is a powerful element in a number of genres – especially science fiction, fantasy, horror, action-adventure, and westerns – remember that keeping your story’s focus on character and action almost always will yield a bigger payoff.

Build character by looking at his values

Successfully building a character in a story almost always is the one challenge a writer absolutely must get right. It’s also often the most difficult challenge facing any writer.

To create a character, first ask yourself, “What matters most to him?” It might be duty, proving oneself to his father, knowing the truth, helping others, or any of a thousand other values that motivate people to behave in a specific way. Upon determining this value, devise a set of physical features and personality traits that lend themselves to revealing it.

Hence, don’t give a male character “blond” hair simply because that’s how you envision him. Instead, this blondness ought to serve a purpose – perhaps it shows him as youthful or possibly it’s because he spends a lot of time outdoors so the sun has “bleached” his hair color. This can be difficult as the more important a character is to a story, arguably, the more physical description of him should be given.

Of course, these qualities should result in a believable character. Even if writing genre fiction, you’re aiming for verisimilitude. Without that, readers will have difficulty identifying with the character.

Such believability can be established by creating the character in the world where your story occurs. That is, every character is extrapolated from a culture. Hence, a modern-day character who is a rogue might wear long, unkempt hair as would a pirate, but he probably wouldn’t don shorts with puffed sleeves and wear breeches, which are clothes out of the 1500s.

Another way to establish believability is to ensure that every reader understands how the character came to be the way he is. This may require you to create a biography or resume for your character; the bio and resume wouldn’t be provided in its entirety to readers but can help you as a writer think through how the character came to be the person he is. The relevant details then would be included in the story.

Always remain flexible as creating a character. Just because you’ve devised a character’s history, you’re not stuck with or limited to it. A character’s background can be changed as necessary while you write the story and develop him. The only rule is to be consistent in the presentation of the character’s background.

Tighten writing by deleting unneeded attribution

If introducing a character through some action, there’s no need to add that they “said” something and then provide their line of dialogue. Simply describing what they’re doing is sufficient to show that they are giving the next line of spoken dialogue – so long as that dialogue appears in the same paragraph as their described action.

For example, instead of writing:

The nurse decided to step in. She said, “Sweetheart we need to redo these stitches and then get you into surgery and fast. It is dangerous for you to be losing this much blood.”

Write this:

The nurse decided to step in. “Sweetheart, we need to redo these stitches and then get you into surgery and fast. It is dangerous for you to be losing this much blood.”

Avoid placing ‘used furniture’ in your story

One of the most common mistakes novice genre writers make is failing to be creative enough with their new universe. Many have developed a great plot and intriguing characters, but their setting is uninteresting – despite that they’ve taken great pains to describe the landscape and appeal to multiple senses.

The problem is that haven’t really created a unique universe. Instead, they’ve set the story in an all ready established universe have merely changed the names to give it semblance of originality. After all, how many science fiction stories boast a spacecraft armed with quantum torpedoes and that represents a great interstellar alliance that is exploring the galaxy? The crew is largely human, except the alien first officer, who hails from Alpha Centauri. If the universe sounds like the USS Enterprise of “Star Trek” fame, it is, albeit with a couple of not so subtle variations.

When writers set a story in another author’s universe – whether it be science fiction, a western, or a mystery sent in a cozy cottage town – and then changes the names to conceal it, they are guilty of using used furniture. It’s a term from screenwriting in which furniture and props from other productions are reused in a new episode or show.

Readers generally feel cheated when a writer borrows another universe, especially in the science fiction genre. Think of it this way: Science fiction can take the reader to utterly new worlds and vistas; it’s one of the appeals to readers of the genre. Reading a story set a universe one has already experienced often is like getting the same meal for dinner that you had for lunch. Sometimes a sequel works, but more often than not it’s a lot like eating leftovers.

Destage dramatic action that slows your story

If your story seems to be moving slowly, you may need to destage some of the action.

A term borrowed from theater and coined by CSFW’s Steve Popkes, destaging occurs when the author moves what has been shown onstage to offstage. Onstage action consists of dramatic passages that are presented with great detail for the reader. In contrast, offstage action is that which occurs behind the curtains and so in a story isn’t shown but merely inferred or quickly noted.

The following is an example of onstage action:

Getting into the car, Pliny buckled his seat belt then turned the ignition. Checking over his shoulder, he saw no vehicles coming and so pulled onto the highway. The sun shined brightly through the windows as he drove to the conference center.

However, this could be presented as offstage action by distilling it to the most basic description of what happened:

After driving to the conference center, Pliny…

The above example of onstage action certainly merits destaging. The details of how Pliny started his car and drove to the conference center are simply not dramatic enough to bear so much attention. Because of that, those details slow the story by reducing suspense and tension.

Often even including a quick reference is unnecessary. In the above example, an empty line or set of centered asterisks probably is sufficient between the scene in which Pliny is at the conference center and the previous scene. Hence, the new scene might simply start, At the conference center, Pliny… Exactly how Pliny reached the conference center is irrelevant to the story; it is sufficient to infer that he used a typical, uninteresting mode of transportation for reaching that location.

Of course, sometimes the writer has to do the opposite of destaging. Action that was shown offstage may need to be moved onstage. That requires fleshing out all of the beat-by-beat details of what was simply inferred or quickly noted.

This decision to destage or to move action onstage usually occurs during rewriting.

Use care when naming places in your story

When creating a setting for your story, always pay special attention to what you name those places. After all, naming places that your characters inhabit and visit help readers keep track of where the character is. But more so than that, names of places help form a story’s tone. The name of a place implies something about its history, and especially in fiction about what the place is like now.

When selecting a name for a place – whether it be a town, a county, a street, neighborhood, geographical feature, or building – follow a couple of simple guidelines. First, names should be familiar enough to be understood but not so unusual as to be distracting. A common enough problem with real places is that they have unpronounceable names, and you probably don’t want that to be an issue in your story. Secondly, don’t use place names similar to your characters’ names. For example, if your main characters’ last name is Bostwick, don’t set the story in Boston or use other place names that begin with the letter B. This only runs the risk of confusing readers.

If actual places are used in your story, always be accurate in your presentation of them. Readers should be able to drive to major landmarks and on major streets that you mention at those locations, so that the story provides an air of authenticity. If you write that I-43 heads through Phoenix, Arizona, readers who live there or have been to Phoenix for any length of time will know that’s inaccurate and find it a distraction. Readers familiar with the area, however, will delight in seeing the location accurately described.

Should you need to make up a name for a place, there are a number of strategies you might use. With examples of actual city/county names, these approaches include:
• Historical figures – Sometimes a place is named after a settler, military leader, Indian chief, or president. Examples include Austin (for Stephen F. Austin), Houston (for Sam Houston), and Washington (for George Washington).
• Geography/geology – Often communities are named after a prominent, nearby feature on the landscape, such as Detroit (for the strait in Lake Erie), Sacramento (after the Sacramento River), and Salt Lake City (Great Salt Lake).
• Flora/fauna – Likewise, communities frequently are named after a plant or animal that dominates an area, like Hickory (in North Carolina) or Albatross (in Missouri).
• Beloved individuals – Many places are named after beloved wives and daughters or for religious figures; for example, San Francisco (for Saint Francis), Atlanta (daughter of a railroad magnate), and San Diego (for Saint James).
• Economic mainstay – If a town was founded to exploit some resource or was a center of some industry, it might be named for the mineral, product or service there, such as Orange County (in California) or Portland (in Oregon).
• European place names – Settlers sometimes named their community after the place they came from in Europe or on the East Coast, like New York City, New Orleans, and New Haven.
• Natives’ names – Often European settlers used Anglicized versions of the natives’ name for an area, as was the case with Chicago (the Miami-Illinois word for “wild onion”), Miami (the Calusa word for “big water”), and Tampa (the Calusa word for “place to gather sticks”).

When selecting a place name, incorporate it into the backstory of your fictional place. Ask how the town came to be given that name. In addition, think about the meaning of the place’s name and see if it can be used as a symbol your story. For example, “Guthrie” is an English surname meaning “windy place”; perhaps in your story, the wind plays an important role in establishing the feel of a place or as a symbol in the story, making “Guthrie” a good name for a town or county.

Remain wary of using fast-forward in story

A literary device that’s often overused by novice writers is that of the fast-forward. This involves taking the story out of its timeline by going to a point in the future. In doing so, the scene reveals important events that are yet to occur in the story. It’s sometimes referred to as prolepsis.

This is the opposite of a flashback, in which the narrative goes back in time to reveal important events that occurred prior to the story began.

A good example of a fast-forward is Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge his future. Larry Watson also uses the technique in Montana, 1948 when he begins the story with the main character recalling images of the novel’s climax.

Unlike foreshadowing, which is merely a hint of what might occur, a flash-forward shows the actual dramatic events that are will occur in the story.

There are good reasons to use a fast-forward. When done properly, a fast-forward can help reveal the main character’s personality. This is the strategy Dickens uses in The Christmas Carol, as we learn through the scene showing how he’ll be remembered that Scrooge actually does care about what others think of him; this in turn influences his decision in the present timeline. A flash-forward also can be used to establish an event that is of high interest and so is a hook to encourage the reader to find out how the story will reach that point; in such instances, it often used as a prologue, as Watson does in Montana, 1948.

Despite these good uses of the literary device, writers always should hesitate to use a fast-forward. Unless it’s a really big, climactic scene that actually would hook the reader into working through an entire story and unless it really does reveal something significant about the character, writers risk reducing suspense and tension by revealing what will happen. This is especially true of minor scenes involving minor characters. If the reader knows the outcome, then there’s little reason to read the intervening text. After all, authors build suspense in part by leaving in question what the outcome of a decision or situation will be.

Handling foreign accents and regional dialects

Sometimes, characters who don’t speak English as their first language will appear in your story. A challenge you’ll likely face is how to portray them. While novice writers may be conscious of not replicating physical stereotypes (e.g. all Muslims wear white flowing clothes, headdresses, and large sunglasses, and have a swarthy complexion), sometimes they still mess up by having their characters use foreign accents and regional dialects.

Unless you’ve lived in another region of the world and so are familiar enough with the dialect there to replicate it with earnestness, writing dialogue in a foreign accent is best avoided. First, accurately imitating regional and ethnic dialects is difficult, and any reader who hails from or has visited that area will know it rings untrue. Secondly, regardless if the reader knows anything about the foreign accent or dialect, you run the risk of it coming across as stereotyped and offensive – and it may just well be, even if you didn’t intend for it to be so. Third, such language is difficult to read, so many readers find it irritating and a hindrance. If a lot of foreign accented dialogue is included, readers may even skip the passage or out the book back on the shelf. Finally, the way people speak does change over time, so stories with foreign accents and dialogue, even if accurately portrayed, risk becoming quaint with each passing year.

To that end, don’t frequently misspell words to indicate offbeat pronunciations. In addition, don’t use fragmented sentences. Lastly, avoid the excessive dropping of letters replaced by apostrophes, called an elision, which is the omitting of a sound or syllable when speaking.

Of course, having a non-English speaking character speak perfect English can come across as odd, too. But there are ways to refer to and establish a character’s “geographical identity.” Hints that they speak in a certain dialect or with an accent can be inserted, and readers can take it from there. One such hint is a simple statement about how the character speaks; for example, a character from the western United States might be described as speaking with a twang, while a Midwesterner might be described as stretching out his long vowels. Another possible hint is the character’s vocabulary; an Englishman would refer to an elevator as a “lift” and a truck as a “lorry,” for example; this might also include dropping in a word or phrase from a foreign language, such “gracias” for “thank you” if the character is from Mexico. Including an occasional elision, such as let’s for “let us” or e’en for “even” that has nothing to really do with the foreign dialect but merely shows the character speaks differently, is all right as well.

An exception to all of this is if you’re describing an alien species or colonists from another world in a science fiction or a fantasy story. Still, don’t take it to extremes, or you risk writing passages that readers will have difficulty working through.

Craft powerful story by paying attention to milieu

While thinking of the elements of a story in terms of plot, setting, character, point of view, and theme is extremely useful, sometimes novice writers don’t recognize that each is much more complex than the standard definition given for them. Take setting, for example. It typically is defined as the place and time of the story. But setting is much more than geographical location or a dates on a calendar.

Another aspect of setting in a story is the milieu, or the social or cultural environment in which the action occurs. This might include what the houses look like to infer how people who live in a location interact and relate to their environment; to wit, homes on the prairie would be one-story and spread out like the landscape around them. The milieu might include what kind of music the characters listen to on the streets; for example, an upbeat reggae performance can indicate a community’s zest for and love of life.

Indeed, whole stories can center around the milieu, such as when a character arrives at a new location and is emotionally affected then transformed by it; this typically occurs in science fiction and to a lesser extent fantasy stories. A good example of a mainstream novel in which the story pivots on the milieu is James Clavell’s “Shogun”, in which the main character, a European explorer, observes and is transformed by medieval Japanese society.

All stories naturally have a milieu. When an author pays attention to crafting it, however, it can be a powerful storytelling tool. After all, the more immersed readers can become in the story’s milieu, the more likely they will be hooked in the story.