Foreshadow It

Monday, September 5, 2016

Have you ever read a book where a weapon magically appeared in the protagonist’s hands just when he or she needed it most? That’s okay if the protagonist has been set up as a magician who can create things out of thin air, but it doesn’t work for ordinary men and women.

That’s an extreme example, of course, but less egregious errors abound. A mother goes to the medicine cabinet and takes out an infrequently prescribed medication that just happens to cure her son’s rare disease. Or a seemingly frail and defenseless protagonist saves the day by using karate to disarm the antagonist. These sudden surprises don’t heighten the tension—they simply lessen the scene’s believability.

If a character is going to use a particular object or skill at a crucial point in the book, use foreshadowing to make the scene realistic. Provide a reason for the medication to be in the medicine cabinet. Show us the protagonist earning her black belt. A few words may be enough, but they must be there.

One of my plot twists in Creating Esther involves a fire escape and a canvas bag. When the scene begins, Ishkode grabs the bag and surreptitiously borrows a key to unlock the door to the fire escape. But how does she know where the bag and the key are? This knowledge shouldn’t come out of thin air any more than a weapon should. I solved that problem by providing the answers in advance.

Accounting for the whereabouts of the key was easy. I simply added an earlier scene with a fire drill, where the matron pulls out her key chain and unlocks the door. That scene worked with the story even standing alone because it showed the conditions at the school. But I also used it to foreshadow two separate plot twists.

The canvas bag was more of a problem. I didn’t want Ishkode grabbing a bag that she hadn’t noticed before, and I didn’t want it suddenly appearing in a convenient place, either. So what did I do? I threw a brief mention into an earlier chapter. Ishkode is sweeping a floor when a messenger tells her that a friend is seriously ill and asking for her. This paragraph follows:

In a rush to leave, Ishkode threw the broom into the closet and knocked a canvas bag off a shelf. Not waiting to pick it up, she ran out of the room, then slowed down before entering the infirmary. Aamoo mustn’t know how worried Ishkode was.

That’s the only mention of the canvas bag until the scene where it becomes important. The reader will probably even forget about it in the meantime. But this brief paragraph answers the question of how Ishkode knew where to find the canvas bag when she needed something to hold—

No, I won’t tell you what she put in the bag. That gives away too much of the plot.

If you want to keep your scenes realistic, plant uncommon objects and skills before you need them.

Your readers will appreciate it.


The photograph at the head of this post shows a fire escape at the now abandoned Mount Pleasant Indian Boarding School. I took the picture last year on my research trip to Ojibwe country.

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