Showing posts with label foreshadowing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label foreshadowing. Show all posts

19 June 2019

It's So Crazy It Might Just... Be Crazy

The author (R) with lampshade.
I have been a fan of The Blacklist through all of its long and somewhat checkered career.  Today I was watching an episode which attempted to explain some of the convoluted conspiracy which is supposedly at the heart of what has gone on for the past six years.

At one point a character said: "That is absurd."

And my reaction was: "Wow.  Nice piece of lampshade-hanging."

I discussed this concept in passing once before.  It refers to a method of coping with a particular authorial dilemma.

Let's say your story involves a plot twist or coincidence so outlandish you are afraid the readers will roll their eyes and throw the book across the room.  That happens.  If you can't change the plot, how can you change the reader's reaction to it?

Well, one method is to "hang a lampshade on it."  This means that, instead of trying to draw attention away from the problem, you actually have a character point it out.  This seems counter-intuitive, but it often works.  Maybe you are indicating to the readers that you know how smart they are.

As the wonderful web site TV Tropes points out, the ol' Bard of Avon could hang a lampshade as neatly as any pulp magazine hack:  Fabian: If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction. (Twelfth Night)

A related method is known as So Crazy It Just Might Work.  Do I have to explain what that means?  You've read it/seen it in a thousand action movies.  It is practically Captain James Kirk's middle name.*

But I would suggest you can divide SCIJMW into two types: Physics and People.  One is better than the other, I think.

Physics: "There's no way the ship's engines can pull us out of the Interplanetary Squid Forest, so let's go full speed ahead straight in! It's so crazy etc."

People: "They have hundreds of armed guards hunting for us everywhere. The one thing they'll never expect us to do is walk up to the prison and sign in as visitors.  It's so crazy etc."

Both are crazy (although not as crazy as an Interplanetary Squid Forest) but the second one seems more reasonable to me because it is based on reverse psychology.  And hey, that sometimes works in real life. Remember the event that was the basis for the movie Argo? Who would expect the CIA to sneak people out of the country by setting them up as a film crew?


Another way of grappling with an improbable plot point is foreshadowing.   I think it was Lawrence Block who pointed out my favorite example of that technique.  In The Dead Zone Stephen King has a lightning rod salesman show up at a bar and try to convince the owner to buy, pointing out the building's location makes it a perfect target for boom.  The owner turns him down and the salesman drives off, his service to literature complete.  When lightning strikes the bar at the very moment the plot requires it the reader, instead of saying "How unlikely!", says "Ha!  The salesman was right!"

 Of course, foreshadowing can be used for different purposes.
In the brilliant TV series I, Claudius there is a scene where a seer witnesses what appears to be an omen.  He interprets it to mean  that young Claudius will grow up to be the rescuer of Rome.  Claudius's sister Livilla scornfully says that she hopes she will be dead before that happens.  Their mother says "Wicked girl!  Go to bed without your supper."  Guess when and how Livilla dies?

So if you are a writer how do you deal with an attacks of the Unlikelies?  And if you are a reader (and I know you all are) which types bother you the most?

* Yes, I know Captain Kirk's middle name is Tiberius.  Now go over there and sit down. 

10 January 2015

Observing SIGNS

Two weeks ago I wrote a column here on foreshadowing, and listed some movies, novels, and short stories in which that writing technique played a part. I also mentioned a film--one of my favorites--that used that approach especially well, telegraphing in a subtle way a number of different events that would occur later in the story.

First, a little background. M. Night Shyamalan is an Indian-American writer/director who made several extremely good movies (The Sixth SenseUnbreakableThe Village, etc.) before his career took a necksnapping, hang-onto-your-seat nosedive with several extremely bad movies (The Happening, The Last Airbender, etc.). In the early Aughts, while still going strong, he wrote and directed a film called Signs, starring Mel Gibson--a movie that used a sci-fi plot to tell what I thought was an excellent story about faith and family and courage. I watched it three times in theatres when it was released in 2002, and to this day I consider it to be one of the best examples of effective story construction.


The title of the film has several meanings, the most obvious a reference to the strange "crop circles" often featured in the news some years ago. Most of these were proven to be hoaxes, but others are still considered by some to have been navigational aids (signs) created by visitors (scouts?) from another planet. The movie Signs begins with Gibson's character Graham Hess, an Episcopal priest who's lost his faith, discovering crop designs in the cornfields near his family's house. Other strange things soon happen, the suspense builds, and the story ends with Graham and his brother and two children not only confronting otherworldly forces but learning a life lesson in the process.

As I've said, a lot of seeds are planted throughout Signs that set up, and/or explain, later occurrences. The following are a few examples.

NOTE 1: SPOILER WARNING. If you've not seen this movie, close your eyes now, and then get thee to a Redbox, or to your Netflix queue. If you have seen it, I hope you'll keep reading, and then let me know whether you agree with my admittedly biased thoughts and opinions. (I used to be Night Shyamalan's Number One Fan.)

The foreshadow knows . . .

- Graham Hess's six-year-old daughter Bo doesn't like their drinking water, and is always leaving half-full glasses all over the house. In the movie's final scenes, it's revealed that water is the only thing that will kill the invading aliens--and Bo's leftover tapwater becomes a weapon. 

- Bo's older brother Morgan has asthma. That illness later helps to keep the alien creature's spray of poison gas from entering Morgan's lungs.

- Graham's brother Merrill was a star baseball player, and holds a local record for the longest home run. (He almost made pro, we're told, but didn't because it always felt wrong "not to swing.") At the end, Merrill uses his baseball bat to save the day.

- Early remarks by Bo hint that her mother's not around. We later find out she died six months ago, a fact that forms the basis for the entire plot.

- When Houdini, the family dog, begins acting weird at the beginning of the movie, Graham tells his kids he'll call Dr. Crawford. Looking surprised, Morgan says, "He doesn't treat animals," but Graham replies, "He'll know what to do." Much later, it turns out Graham prefers to contact the MD rather than the nearby veterinarian--Ray Reddy--because Reddy is the man who caused the auto accident that killed Graham's wife. (Even then, we're never told that Reddy is a vet; we only get a quick shot of his mailbox, which has his name and profession written on the side.)

- Shortly after Houdini urinates on the kitchen floor, the sheriff tells Graham that several local dogs have been peeing on themselves--as if they'd smelled a predator.

- In one scene Bo tells her brother Morgan that she doesn't want him to die. At the end of the story, Morgan is the only member of the family who indeed comes very close to dying.

- In Reddy's otherwise empty house, a trapped alien gropes underneath a pantry door and Graham chops off a couple of its fingers with a butcher knife. In the final scenes, when one of the aliens is holding Morgan's limp body, we see that two of the creature's fingers are missing.

- In the first scene, at the farmhouse, an empty spot outlined on the wall indicates that a cross once hung there but is now gone. And early on, the sheriff refers to Graham as "Father"--the first indication that he used to be a priest. He replies, "Don't keep calling me Father."

- Ray Reddy, as he prepares to flee from his home, tells Graham that he has a feeling the creatures "don't like water." Turns out he's right: water burns their skin, like acid.

- In two separate nighttime scenes at the farmhouse, the crickets outside suddenly stop chirping. Nothing happens right away, and only later do we realize it was a sign that something sinister has arrived and is in the area.

- Graham's dying wife is seen in a flashback, instructing him in her last words to tell his brother Merrill to "swing away." That's exactly what happens, at the end.

- While hiding in their basement, Merrill tells Graham he's just heard on the radio that the aliens who have landed in other parts of the world have retreated, but that they did so suddenly and left some of their wounded behind. The creature that Graham wounded earlier (by cutting off its fingers) turns out to be waiting for them upstairs.

- The opening scene of the film (Graham coming out of the bathroom in their house) is repeated in the last scene. The second time, we see through the window that the seasons have changed (time has passed), and he's now wearing a priest's collar.

I realize that listing these examples this way, out of order and out of context, doesn't make the movie sound very interesting--but it is. It's a story that, at least to me, combines fine performances with a great setting and soundtrack, humor, steadily-building tension, and a stunningly emotional ending. I challenge you to watch the final scenes without brushing away a tear (and my movie tears are usually reserved for Dumbo and Old Yeller). Have any of you seen Signs? Any opinions?

Night shift

Note 2: As I've said, I used to be used to be one of Night Shyamalan's biggest fans. Although I have friends who hated SignsThe Village, and another of his movies called Lady in the Water, I loved all three, and even wrote about Shyamalan in a 2008 Criminal Brief column, here, two weeks before The Happening happened. As things turned out, The Happening crashed and burned, and so did 2010's The Last Airbender, which I found myself hoping would be The Last Shyamalan Project. I recently watched his latest film, After Earth, and thought it was so-so.
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But I'm trying to remain loyal. The Nightster obviously has great talent, and maybe his next movies will be as good as his early ones were. If the are, I'll be the first to reboard his bandwagon.

Meanwhile, I'll just watch Signs again. I hope you will too.

27 December 2014

Don't Say You Weren't Warned

by John M. Floyd

Mystery author Lawrence Block once told a joke about the use of foreshadowing. I'm paraphrasing, but here it is:

Officer: Okay, soldier. Suppose an enemy sub surfaced and ran aground on that beach over there, and suppose it offloaded fifty enemy troops. What would you do?

Soldier: Sir, I'd blow 'em off the sand with concentrated mortar fire.

Officer: What? Where would you get the mortars?

Soldier: Same place you got the submarine.

Foreshadowing, according to Block, is the technique of making both the submarine and the mortars acceptable to the reader.

Definitions vary. Merriam-Webster says foreshadowing is "a suggestion of something that has not yet happened." In the literary world, it's a little more complicated. Among other things, it means the early inclusion of information that makes later action believable. Because of this, and because our fictional plots must always be (or at least appear to be) logical, this writing technique is one of the most useful items in our toolkit.

It's a mystery to me

Mystery stories probably lend themselves to foreshadowing more than any other genre, because the clues in the narrative usually lead to the solution of the case--and if the reader pays attention, he is ideally given enough facts to come up with the answer himself. This is true of most crime/suspense stories, not just whodunits; the foreshadowing in thrillers and other non-traditional mysteries is sometimes used to telegraph to the reader the means by which the protagonist will get out of whatever fix the writer puts him in. Maybe there's a hidden gun in the kitchen cabinet, or the killer's henchman is really an undercover cop, or the radio button on the dashboard is the trigger for the ejection seat.

And foreshadowing isn't always used just to "explain" later events. It can also be a way to generate suspense and anticipation. If you read a story or novel or see a movie that mentions, during its first half, a particularly scary place, or an especially fearsome enemy, then you as the reader/viewer will dread any situation that might put our hero in that dangerous location, or put him in contact with that terrible person or entity you've been told about. Consider this: A group of hikers sees a razor-wire fence, or maybe a skull-and-crossbones sign, on a ridge as they pass through the valley below, and one of them asks their guide what it is. The guide looks up and frowns and says, "Oh, that? That's the border of the Forbidden Zone. We won't be going there." That of course is foreshadowing, and the Forbidden Zone is of course exactly where the poor hikers will wind up, before the story's done.

What does foreshadowing really look like, in some of the movies and novels and stories that we've seen or read?  (NOTE: The following examples contain spoilers . . .)

Hiding in plain sight

The Usual Suspects -- As Verbal is questioned by the police, he sees a number of newspaper clippings posted on their bulletin board. Those "clues" later add up to a great surprise ending.

Psycho -- Norman Bates tells his motel guest, early on, that his mother is "as harmless as one of those stuffed birds." Which turns out to be true, since she's as dead as they are. It's her son who isn't harmless.

Wait Until Dark -- The blind lady remarks to a visitor in her apartment that her old refrigerator growls when its door is open because it needs to be defrosted. Later, after the lady has escaped from a killer in her apartment and has frantically knocked out all the lights in every room so he'll be in the dark as well, he quietly opens her fridge's door so the light will come on and he can see. She, of course, doesn't know he's done this--but then the refrigerator growls. She now knows the door's open, and knows that he can see her but she can't see him. One of the best movies scenes I've ever watched.

The Empire Strikes Back -- "Much anger in him," Yoda says to Obi-wan, "like his father." He's talking about Luke Skywalker, who turns out to be the son of Darth Vader.

Jaws -- Hooper warns Chief Brody about the potentially explosive nature of the scuba tanks, and Brody says something like "What good is all this expensive equipment? Maybe the shark will eat it." Later the shark winds up with one of the tanks in his mouth (jaws?) and Brody shoots the tank, thus blowing Great Whitey to bits.

Reservoir Dogs -- An orange balloon is seen floating along in the street behind a car. As the story progresses, Mr. Orange turns out to be the impostor who's infiltrated the gang.

The James Bond novels and films -- Before most of 007's missions, the armorer demonstrates the newest lethal gadgets developed by Q Branch. Later Bond uses them to save his skin (and the world).

Fatal Attraction -- When Dan Gallagher says he has to go walk his dog, the lady to whom he is fatally attracted replies, "Just bring the dog over--I'm great with animals and I love to cook." She later cooks Gallagher's daughter's pet bunny.

Once Upon a Time in the West -- Several brief flashbacks show a mysterious blurred figure approaching the protagonist, in the desert. At the end, that image clears to reveal the villain--and the reason the protagonist has been searching for him for all these years.

The Edge -- An Alaskan guide explains to a group of tourists what a bear pit is, and points one out, saying, "Be careful--don't fall in." Afterward, when the two main characters are alone in the wilderness, and one is about to shoot the other, the gunman falls into a bear pit. The viewer accepts this turn of events only because of that earlier explanation.

The Shawshank Redemption -- During the search of an inmate's cell, the prison's warden picks up a Bible and says, "Salvation lies within." It's later revealed that the rock hammer used for the breakout is concealed inside the hollowed-out pages of that Bible.

Goodfellas -- "Tommy's not a bad kid," Paulie Cicero admits. "What am I supposed to do, shoot him?" Which is exactly what happens.

Citizen Kane -- The word "rosebud" is spoken at the first, and its meaning is revealed at the end.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade -- At one point, the wealthy collector notes that they're only one step away from locating the Holy Grail. Indy replies, "That's usually where the ground falls out from underneath your feet." When at the end of the story they find the Grail, a huge earthquake swallows some of the party.

Aliens -- Lt. Ellen Ripley, who during training has demonstrated her proficiency with a powerloader, later uses a powerloader to battle and defeat the alien queen.

"The Lottery" -- The pile of stones at the very beginning of this short story later takes on a whole new meaning.

Cool Hand LukeGhostLove StoryCasablanca -- Bits of early dialogue are later repeated at or near the end, for closure: "What we got here is a failure to communicate," "Ditto," "Love means never having to say you're sorry," "Here's looking at you, kid."

L.A. Confidential -- Captain Smith asks Ed Exley whether he would be willing to plant evidence, beat a confession out of a suspect, or shoot a criminal in the back. Exley says no. By the end of the movie, he has done all three.

These are probably not the best examples, but they're some that came quickly to mind. Can you think of other cases where foreshadowing is effectively used? As a writer, do you find yourself using it in your own fiction?

Signs of things to come

I recently re-watched a film called Signs, made in 2002 and featuring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. That movie successfully uses more instances of foreshadowing than any other I've seen--so many that I plan to cover it in a separate column. Probably in two weeks.

How's that for foreshadowing?