Too improbable? A Writing Tip from Arline Chase

Fall Wedding by Arline ChaseQuestion: You always advised your students to join writers’ groups as if they could give no other good advice they would, at least, ask “What have you written this week?” But I’m starting to think I ought to search for a new group. They all agree that my work is, “Too hard to believe” and all my plot twists are either “impossible” or “improbable.” Okay, my stuff “pushes the envelope.” But I have avidly read books with weirder plots than mine…any ideas?

Answer: Thinking back to my own writer’s group days (with many thanks to the critique sessions at IWWG) my best guess is that it’s either a lack of foreshadowing, or a failure to write the action convincingly. Knowing your work from your student days, my guess is foreshadowing.

It is important to foreshadow and many writers fear to do it, in case they give too much away. FORESHADOWING is a technique that leads the reader smoothly along, hinting at what is coming next. Foreshadowing makes future action more believable. Most of us don’t notice it, but when it’s not there, crises seem too precipitate, changes too sudden, surprises are — well, too much of a shock not to overcome some readers’ “Willing suspension of disbelief.”

For instance if your crisis is going to be the landing of a space ship from Mars, you want to have some character see a few UFOs before it happens. Then use a writer’s best tool, Denial, to sell their existence. It’s not enough, either, just to let the reader see them when they happen. After they do see the UFOs, (and talk about) them, the other characters should tell them how impossible their experience was. The more they say there ARE NO UFOs, the more the reader will sub-consciously believe they’re there. This will NOT give away the landing of the Martians, but it will foreshadow that UFOs exist and the reader will be prepared to believe in therm when the Martians land. Just ask H.G. Wells — or Orson Wells — or even Richard Dreyfuss.

One way to convince a reader improbable action is possible, is to juxtapose it with everyday things. Barbara Michaels always has her characters discuss their ghosts, satanic possessions, and hauntings while eating hamburgers or pizza. The reader believes in the pizza and “swallows” the ghosts along with it. Don’t laugh. She grounds the experience in something every reader has experienced….

Remember, the reader is on the hero or heroine’s side. And on your side. By picking up the book, they gave you that gift of a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Anna, I think this may just be the foreshadowing, but I AM guessing. If I’m wrong, let me know.

All fiction writers are liars, but it’s important to tell a good and convincing lie. That’s the fiction writer’s job — to spin the dream, so it continues, without any wake-up calls.

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Arline Chase became a publisher at Write Words, Inc. on Jan. 1, 2000. She is an award-winning author, journalist, teacher, and mentor to authors all over the world. Arline is a long-time member of the International Women’s Writing Guild and has led workshops at their conferences as well as workshops and panels at Malice Domestic and other writers conferences. She is a member of the Author’s Guild, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of American and the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association. You can learn more about Arline on her website.

A version of this post appeared on her blog at Write Words/Arline Chase on May 29, 2012

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14 thoughts on “Too improbable? A Writing Tip from Arline Chase”

  1. Thankyou a bunch! Im an aspiring new writer of horror and this piece of advice helped a lot. I will try to keep this in mind. I just signed up for a workshop from Michael Knost and Im in the middle of my first book.

  2. For me the first draft of a story is just me discovering the story for /myself/. Foreshadowing occurs in the many drafts thereafter when I'm fleshing out the characters, the background, the history, the politics etc for other people.

    Another reason I guess why editing is such a huge part of the writing process.

  3. How true this is!! Im finding out that after my first draft is halfway complete ,I need to go back and rewrite the opening scene,plus several postit notes on things to fix. It has really grown into a huge udertaking,but one that I enjoy. Plus from my first book Im learning all kinds of things

  4. Thanks!

    This came at an excellent time for me as I was just going in to write a foreshadow of a prison scene that appears in later chapters of my latest project. I was questioning if I would be giving too much away and this helped me confirm that my "hint" is needed. Appreciate the advice.

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