First Lines: Foreshadowing

Monday, May 29, 2017

To foreshadow is to hint at what is to come. The hint can be either weak or strong, indirect or direct, veiled or obvious.

Consider these openings:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez)

What does the first paragraph of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone tell the reader? That something strange and mysterious is about to happen. It doesn’t tell us what, though, so we keep reading to find out. This is a mild hint, but it is enough to intrigue us.

The first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the reader exactly what is going to happen. No subtlety here. Unfortunately, the rest of the very long paragraph, while interesting, weakens the impact of the first sentence. But the opening is still strong enough to keep readers reading to discover what led to the firing squad.

Foreshadowing sounds easy, so why doesn’t everybody use it? It’s because of the pitfalls.

First, foreshadowing may give away too much. Take the classic puzzle mystery. In the spirit of fair play, the author gives the reader all the information he or she needs to figure out who did it. But the author also tries to outsmart the reader—often by hiding the clues in plain sight. Nobody wants it to be too easy, and the reader often prefers the surprise and pleasure of being outsmarted. So this is a bad first paragraph: “Karen smiled as she threw the gun into the pond. She had gotten away with it.” If you have a different kind of mystery and the question is why she did it, that opening may work fine. But for a puzzle mystery, it gives away too much.

The second pitfall is the danger of promising more than you deliver. The opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone works because the book is filled with strange and mysterious happenings. And the protagonist in One Hundred Years of Solitude does face a firing squad, or so I’m told. (I haven’t read the book.) But if you can’t deliver, try a different approach.

Next week we’ll talk about what I believe is the most common type of opening—the one that raises questions in the reader’s mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment