retconning the unexpected (aka “foreshadowing”)

I wanted to show a character being comfortable enough around another that they’d let themselves into the space and make themselves at home even without permission asked or granted. At this point in the character’s development, that is the most significant thing he could have done — assume he’d be welcomed unannounced.

And because you should never give your characters anything they want unless they’ve earned it, my poor little ADHD character was going to have to WAIT while someone he CARED ABOUT needed SLEEP even though he’s ON TIME for their departure. But then, I thought, well, why was this otherwise punctual character sleeping in in the first place? I had to go back and knit three different scenes to make that initial conflict of “he wants to leave but travel companion is asleep” significant.

And that scene I would have missed out on would have been a major plot reveal not even I saw coming. All because I needed the unexpected to make sense, plot-wise. It took almost an hour to make all the changes necessary.

People will take money from underpublished writers and tell them their first draft only needs polishing. It should be treated like a hazy outline until the work crafts the experience the author desires for their readers and then polished to the nth degree. Instead, the author’s desire to “break the rules” by excluding structures of fiction like conflict and tension comes at the cost of the reader’s ability to be emotionally invested in the plight of a character that they care enough to read about.

I asked Intern Ben when he gave us his first story what was the first moment on the page that something unexpected happened. He saw that there wasn’t one. The greatest thing you can give your reader is something that needs hindsight to be obvious.

Foreshadowing is just retconning the unexpected and its easiest to do with a finished first draft. Most of my foreshadowing work in my first draft looks done with a two-by-four until I know exactly what happens the first time around.

Adding foreshadow to give the unexpected just a tiny hint of familiarity is a breeze once the events have already been established. But the writer needs to learn to write for unexpected moments first. Events the reader expects should only be doled out as needed and doesn’t need any foreshadowing.

If it’s supper time, the characters should be hungry. If they’re not hungry, foreshadowing why they’re not hungry will give the reader a sense of unease before a single character needs to sit down and not eat.

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