I’m usually too busy writing and editing to watch a great deal of TV, and I’m a shocker for multi-tasking through movies, so I’m going to concentrate on novels, specifically on how I use foreshadowing to work to create suspense in my own writing, and how my subconscious mind often totally sees things coming in my own novels long before I do.
It is true that many good novels follow a formula. Most can be boiled down to a few standard plots or tropes. As an editor, it’s part of my job to detect where a novel is heading and to ensure that each scene follows a logical,interesting path to that place, or, conversely, that a novel deviates so markedly from its purported path that it will shock or surprise readers, taking them to places they never anticipated. It takes sleight of hand to generate suspense in a novel: the old magician’s trick of making a reader focus in on something else while you slip the rabbit in the hat for later. The connotation of words, semiotics and symbolism, foreshadowing, flashback and echoing are the tools writers use to create a false sense of security, or to drop hints in their novels.
If you’ve read my shorts Cage Life and Crows & Other Beasts, and especially if you’ve read Cruxim and the Dark Guardians trilogy, you’ll know that I love to throw twists and turns into my novels. Readers have often asked me if I plan or plot out my books in detail. Mostly, I briefly work out major plot points and develop the sense of an ending'. Often, the twists and turns in my work appear organically, and sometimes the ending changes as a result. In other words, I often don’t see my own twists coming until I write them. But how, readers ask, could those actions appear out of the blue when there are little clues throughout your text? The answer is that those scattered clues and nods toward motif are foreshadowing, which I've added in a very calculated way. I insert them at second draft to provide the reader with signposts.
The motif of the swans in Creche was very much a surprise. When I started writing, I didn’t know Skylar would lead me to a nest, and I certainly hadn’t conceived of the link to the Sibylim. The idea actually came from out of left field, as I watched a ballet performance of Swan Lake on TV. It worked so well that it seemed as if it should have been there from the moment I first started writing Cruxim.
I had needed a good explanation for how there were so many Cruxim, given their strange lifecycle, and the story of the swans worked beautifully and tied into the creation of the harpies I knew I wanted to introduce in Creed. Sometimes, solutions just fall into your lap! Many twists in the Dark Guardians trilogy were ideas that leaped out at me as I ate breakfast, or tried to sleep, or as I watched something totally random and seemingly disconnected to my work.
In knowing the motivations of my characters in Cruxim, I was also able to slip in words or phrases that would become more significant later, such as Beltran’s goading use of familial terms in scenes between him and Amedeo, some of the terminology used by Basil in Cage Life to hint that things might not be exactly what they seem with that narrator, or the snake imagery and sense of growing foreboding in Crows.
When I get that building sense of suspense, I like to let it carry me along with it. I knew very early on, for instance, the relationship between Beltran and Amedeo, and that the incunabulum had a role to play in bringing them together somehow. I also knew that there was a black hole in Skylar’s story before she found Amedeo on the beach. How did she know about him? How did she just 'happen' to be there? I used that 'black hole' in which I knew Skylar’s actions and no one else did to later make her a more sympathetic character. That enabled me to manipulate Amedeo’s impression of her, and thus the reader’s impression and create a love-hate dichotomy early in their relationship. In a way, I made Ame a slightly unreliable narrator, and Skylar one too. In Ame’s case, it was not because he wasn’t honest, but because he honestly didn’t know about his past. In Skylar’s case … well, it was all of those secrets. A girl’s got to have secrets, after all.
Using unreliable narrators is a great way of manipulating suspense. It worked brilliantly in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, as the reader first came to trust Nick and then saw him exposed by Amy or by his own foibles, and vice versa. It is only later that the reader sees just how manipulative each character really is, and sees Gillian Flynn for the exceptional puppet master she is in setting up the whole sordid story.
Some readers were critical of Cruxim for my holding back. They felt it was an oversight to not explore the nature of Amedeo’s character in detail, rather than a deliberate mechanism to keep him in the dark for now. But I knew that I could not divulge information Ame himself did not yet know (at least not without slipping out of his point of view) and that withholding that information from him and from the reader would enable me the element of surprise later, when I wanted to reveal who he was and how he had been born and raised. I also wanted that information to come as a shock to him as much as anyone else. Because he could then react to it in exactly the way I know Ame would have, with anger and doubt and self-loathing.
Of course, withholding information from the reader doesn’t always mean they won’t guess it either. And that is what #ISawThatComing is all about. One of my favourite beta readers guessed something big I had plotted out for the end of Creed while she was beta reading Creche. She totally saw it coming, yet as far as I know, from reviews and reader feedback, no on else has commented on it being obvious.
If you’ve read Dark Guardians, please do stop by and comment on anything that you totally saw coming. If you didn’t see anything coming, I’d love to know what was your biggest surprise