When I started my novel We the Damned my outline was no longer than a paragraph. All I wanted to know was the premise, the players, and the conflict.
In the story the demon Court of Skulls puts Eugene Black’s life on trial. They sabotage his defense by assigning him Murphy O’Dell, a day drinking public defender in the process of being disbarred. The courts rigs the evidence, alters procedure, and calls a series of couched witnesses to convince Eugene his life has no meaning. The court’s victory seems like a foregone conclusion until Murphy comes to care about his client.
I knew the surface conflict, but wanted to wait until I was in the thick of writing to understand the characters’ underlying motivations. All I knew was the Court of Skulls wanted to damn a soul while concealing its importance, and Murphy wanted to win, because it gave him a chance to stick it to the demons who he learned have been sabotaging his life all along.
The trial structure seemed simple. There’d be opening statements followed by three witnesses whose testimony would frame each act. The witnesses would tell stories about Eugene Black that hinted at a mysterious connection between the lawyer and his client. Murphy would leverage his moral flexibility in the cross examinations, and the Court of Skulls would change the rules of the game to thwart him. The attorney for the demons would give a closing statement that spelt doom and Murphy would give his closing with a bloody nose and an ace up his sleeve.
I knew the story’s ending before I finished act one, but by the time I got to the third act I felt like the story needed something to make readers’ eyes widen, a mic drop moment to show just how malevolent hell’s lawyers were. I needed my own take on George R.R. Martin’s infamous Red Wedding scene. I placed my twist just before the climax, giving Murphy one last chance to turn his case around.
I loved what I came up with. It made the court seem like a greater threat and it raised the stakes before the lawyers came to blows. There was just one problem: I hadn’t set any of it up before the third act.
How to Plant A Twist that Wasn’t in Draft One
Now that I’m editing We the Damned I’m setting up my twist as if it’d been mapped out all along. I’m doing this by rerouting the paths I’d foreshadowed to a new destination. These are the avenues I’m focusing on.
Narrative Foreshadowing is a tool writers use to break the forth wall and hand spoilers to readers. This type of telegraphing is great for shock value. Stephen King demonstrates it throughout his Dark Tower series with lines like “and that was the last time he saw her alive.”
Narrative Foreshadowing is a type of exposition that jolts the reader into paying attention. It builds suspense by guaranteeing tragedy.
There are no take backs with narrative foreshadowing. These statements are not open to interpretation, unless your narrator is dishonest. When editing, you’re going to have find and replace every statement that contradicts your ending.
This tool serves the same purpose as Narrative Foreshadowing, but rather than stating a character is going to die it hints at it with symbolism. The symbol could be an object like a candle at a banquet table flickering out near a character whose flame is about to be extinguished.
The symbol could also be an past event like when a baby almost drowned in a bathtub hinting that that character might drown as an adult later.
Symbolic foreshadowing can be tedious to edit, because the author can bury it so deeply in their story they might not recognize it when it comes time for a second draft. This is why I recommend leaving comments to yourself in the margins of your document where you spell out your symbolism. I also recommend color coating these paragraphs so that when you come back to edit you know if what you foreshadowed is consistent with what happens.
Repurpose Your Foreshadowing into a Red Herring
It’s not uncommon for me to use Symbolic Foreshadowing to forecast a character death only to give that character a stay of execution.
Don’t cut all your foreboding hints when you spare a character. Leave some in to keep the audience guessing. Those symbolic omens can subvert your audience’s suspicions and surprise them when death comes for someone else.
For instance, in The Avengers: Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon uses symbolic foreshadowing to trick the audience into thinking Hawkeye is going to die. Hawkeye gets injured in the first act. There are long lingering shots of Hawkeye saying goodbye to his family and a slow motion shot of him running into gunfire, but when the dust settles death comes for another.
Chekov’s Guns Must Be Fired
If a character says, “Take your father’s elephant gun down from the fireplace it looks tacky” in act one, then you can be certain that character will be counting on that gun in act three.
Keep a log of all of the prophetic props your characters mention in passing. If you’re like me, you’ll realize that you set up more of these elements than your characters got around to using. If your characters never end up prying Chekov’s gun off the wall it’s better to edit it out for the sake of brevity than to shoehorn another scene in.
My work in progress is filled with moments where characters create things that predict plot points:
- A poet, whose work resembles guided meditations, realizes his poems are directions to his past, present, and future life events.
- A haunted tour guide creates an attraction that resembles the scene of a crime that’s yet to happen.
- A woodcarver keeps sculpting the likeness of the same women until he ends up meeting her.
Perhaps these artists sensed patterns in the world around them and used their work to express the connections. Perhaps they felt danger like animals feel the coming of stormy weather, or perhaps they just felt it in their bones.
In fantasy fiction psychic visions often come to fruition. Think of your new twist as the sum of an equation. Your premonitions are the unknown variables that add up to it. Your premonitions must be edited to be equal to the twist.
How Writers Can Map Shifting Terrain
I like to write the first draft of my story with a sense of discovery, to take the long way home. That’s why I plot a really basic map. I know where the destination is. I know the landmarks along the way: the break in my character’s routine happens at the beginning of the trip. A third of the way I pass the point of no return. Midway all of my characters’ alliances shift. Two thirds of the way the story dips into its lowest point, and then the story races to the climax.
My basic map allows for sudden detours that approach the same destination through different means. The problem is sudden turns can feel jarring to readers, especially if the turns weren’t hinted on the horizon. These clever twists run the risk of feeling unearned, leaving the audience to think less of the destination.
In fiction writing, if there’s a problem with your ending it started in act one.
Writers have to earn that detour by rerouting their story earlier. Before you go back and edit, write a list of road signs to insert throughout the story so that your detour feels earned. The alternate route need not be obvious, but it needs to be hinted at. Repurpose your foreshadowing devices. Find new uses for your symbols, Red Herrings, and Checov’s Guns.
I didn’t write an outline before I started my story, but I am writing one for my edits; a checklist of landmarks my story needs to visit before I earn my new ending. I’m not too worried. Now that I’ve been to my destination I can map a better route there.
This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.