Subtlety within Stories

Fact: No one likes being slapped in the face.

Not that I’ve tried it, but it’s kind of one of those things you learn over time, mostly from hitting your brothers, and then your parents getting angry at you, eventually learning, yep, it’s bad to punch people. They don’t like it, and it hurts.

And you know what? Same rule applies to books – you shouldn’t punch your readers.

Take for instance this paragraph:

As an isolate polity, disconnected from the manifold while the research project runs, it should be about as safe as anywhere can be. Just as long as none of my stalkers are signed up for it… (Stross 37)

Here, the character is saying that while he hides in this private society, he’ll be safe from his enemies…as long as his stalkers aren’t signing up for it. And of course this is a hint. Why? Because if this is what he fears, then it makes sense for a story to make the character face and conquer his fears. So really, this is telling the reader, FYI – expect this to happen soon!

Not exactly the most subtle approach, but it is a warning for the things to come so that it’s not unexpected when it occurs – AKA foreshadowing. Plus, it makes the reader feel like they have insight, making sure every reader (not just the writerly ones) are on the same page in terms of expectations.

Here’s another example: 

“I had such a void that I-well, I made the mistake of falling in love again. Too soon, with somebody who was brilliant and fast and witty and probably completely crazy. And they asked me about the experiment while I was miserable, trying to figure out whether I really was in love or was just fooling myself. We discussed the experiment, but I don’t think they were too keen on the idea. And in the end it all got too much for me: I signed up, backed myself up, and woke up in here.” (Stross 94)

To readers, those who read the beginning of the story, this will sound familiar. That’s because in this scene, the author is hinting, drawing parallels between an old character and this new one. He is foreshadowing, hinting, that they are the same character.

I haven’t seen a lot of foreshadowing lately, and thinking back, I’m not sure it’s because books lately haven’t included a lot of foreshadowing, or if it’s because it’s too subtle for me to notice. I know this is my first instance, so it was probably more obvious than usual, or maybe I was more attuned to it.

But what I would like to point out is the face that these foreshadowing hints help readers align expectations, so that either the character’s and reader’s thoughts align, such as in the first example, or so that the author’s and reader’s thoughts align, such as in the second example. Either way, alignment helps everyone follow along, keeps people interested (who feel like they’ve succeeded in decoding the book), and keep readers from feeling put off by random events.

It’s a good technique, one I’m still trying to integrate.

Stross, C. Glasshouse. New York, NY: Ace, 2014.


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