Plausible? Impossible!

As a software tester by day, I’m always running headlong into the unknown unknowns. It’s part of the job description: finding this stuff before it goes live – if I can. I know and my manager knows that I’m not going to get all of it. If I can get the worst, we count that as a good job.

This crosses over to writing in several ways. One of the biggest is that a testing scenario is a story, complete with characters and plot. Characters and plot are usually pretty thin by author standards, but there are times when I’m quite sure they’re fantasy.

That testing story can get really fun when I get to go into the more esoteric aspects of the craft, like security testing (“I am Evil Hacker Dood. I am looking for way to make all your base belong to me.”) or load testing (“Just how high can I take this thing before it turns into a denial of service on the company intranet?”). Then there’s the stories I have to tell to convince people who don’t really understand the risks that yes, they actually do need to fix this problem.

Which is where I run right into the issue of something that’s plausible – even self-evident – to me looking impossible to someone else.

For work stuff I can make my case to the manager and he’ll make the call whether to do the thing or not. For fiction it’s not that simple.

To start with, it doesn’t matter if it can actually happen or not: if the in-book setup doesn’t make it reasonable, it’s going to give the book flying lessons. Hence, foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is where you the author carefully and ever so casually drop the little hints that your reader’s subconscious will grab and store away. Lots of little hints. You use Checkov’s Gun, and show the gun over the fireplace that’s going to be used several scenes later. Or in our genre, the sword. Or lightsaber. Or whatever. If you’re really good it’s not functional and has to be used in a non-standard way (I am not gratifying anyone’s feelthy mind, even my own, with speculation about how the hero is going to use the broken lightsaber).

Even better, you include everything to justify what happens later early on, in bits that are apparently red herrings or character development. If you need to explain how something works, you show it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t understand it and have them asking about it – if all Joe knows about dragons is that they’re big and they breathe fire, it’s perfectly reasonably for him to ask Bob (who, as everyone knows, knows all about everything) how he and his friends should deal with the beast. Have some business (in the theater sense, where the actors will do stuff that’s appropriate to the scene, like flipping through a book, or fiddling with the scenery) going on at the same time, like maybe Joe is sharpening his special-order Plus Ten Sword of Dragonslaying while he’s talking to Bob, or something. Even fiddling with his clothing works, but it’s better if you can contrive something that will be relevant later. Or come back and add it when you edit.

You see how that works? You can embed a heck of a lot of information about how things work and prepare people for your Big Reveal (or Big Encounter or whatever flavor of Big your ending uses). As a pantser of the extreme variety, I can say that you don’t have to be a plotter to do this. Even if you don’t know where the piece is going until it arrives you can foreshadow. It just has to happen in the editing passes instead of in the early drafts – something I’ve grown quite familiar with.

Half the time I find my subconscious has already put in the foreshadowing hooks for me to expand on. It’s a better writer than I am, or at least a better plotter. It’s also better at remembering that if I want people to know what’s going on, I have to actually write it down, not just leave half of it in my imagination.

Not like life which does erratic things like dump a couple of feet of snow less than a week after 70 degree temperatures. If I did that in a book it would meet the wall so fast… Which is a lesson in itself. If you need the snowstorm shortly after really nice weather, then make sure your characters make snarky comments about how changeable it is at this time of year so the snow doesn’t look like Act of Author.

Obvious Act of Author makes books get flying lessons.


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47 responses to “Plausible? Impossible!

  1. Foreshadowing is something I don’t quite grasp. I can put the pieces into place so they don’t arrive on the 5:10 deus ex machina, but actually foreshadowing events . . . not so well. Examples: The blatant foreshadowing in the dialog of Finding Nemo as Marlin swims with Nemo to school; the death of the scarlet ibis in the short story by the same name. When I try that, it rolls out on a unicycle as it waves orange flags: “Hey, look at me! I’m the foreshadowing!”

    Anyone have any suggestions?

    • Dave Freer is, imo, one of the best at it. Maybe we can figure out a way to bribe him into telling us what the secret is.

      • If you mention a bunch of stuff lightly, and have some of that stuff show up later for cute reasons… the serious foreshadowing will fit into the background.

        Mystery writers use a lot of misdirection foreshadowing. Maybe study some Golden Age novels?

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          If you have enough self discipline, and a story you haven’t read that you have conclusive testimony has excellent pacing and foreshadowing, you can really study it, reading slightly more each time, taking plenty of breaks for analysis and thinking it over with your back brain. If you love it enough, and have absurd self discipline.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      One thing that makes me notice foreshadowing is a serialized story (written by someone who does good foreshadowing and pacing) which goes long enough between updates that I sift things through a sieve or reread everything in my search for clues about what might happen next. On some of the updates I go “that is what those clues meant” or “called it”.

      I did this with Vathara’s Embers, and I’m currently doing it a little with ‘Miracles of Ancient Wonder’, a RWBY/Exalted cross done by, IIRC, GravelessUniverse. I’m pretty sure Ozpin in that is a *mumble*.

      Things are obvious in hindsight, and should be especially obvious when you have put them in yourself. But a first time reader can’t necessarily sort the foreshadowing from the Heinleined infodumps.

      • aacid14

        I tend to feel A mystery or thriller should read different the first and second times it is read. First time the reader should have to think at it and be able to catch the conclusion if they follow directly but foreshadowing needs to be a sequence of small things, not a single unicycle riding clown. Second time, knowing the outcome you should be able to pick up the ‘this is wrong’ points and catch the hints better.

    • Kate Paulk

      Foreshadowing is difficult, and it ALWAYS looks more obvious to the author than it does to readers. Also, listen to Amanda. Dave Freer is indeed excellent about foreshadowing.

      He says there’s a rule of three: mention the thing you’re foreshadowing at least three times, but do it differently each time.

      • Tom

        It can also look obvious to other authors.

        I picked out a mole in one author’s work, and mentioned I thought it was kind of obvious. The author PMed me on Facebook and we had an interesting conversation about how I was the first to tell him that. I think we figured out that because I’m a writer too, I picked up on a handful of clues that others apparently missed.

        When he mentioned it, I felt he had a point since I usually peg the killer on TV cop shows, not from an analysis of the clues, but because I seem to get the writing of it.

        • Kate Paulk

          Oh, yeah. The last time I went to a work XMas party, they did one of those staged mysteries. My table solved it because I picked up the clues. It was *screamingly* obvious to me who did it.

          • Tom


            We ruin mysteries so much of the time. 😀

            Seriously, it’s a good reason to not just have writers as beta readers. Writers might pick up things differently than an average reader.

  2. paladin3001

    Oy, foreshadowing. This is going to be tricky. Then again, seeing it so badly played in popular stories makes me want to curl up and die. And yes I have seen impossible stuff in real life (snow in July in Central Ontario). Crap….back to the plotting phase.

    • aacid14

      Ah yes. The quandry of just how realistic is believable. Closely juxtaposed with the ‘how much of my reader’s believability is from media’. Even just a shellshocked character when the unbelievable happens helps for me as a reader. Miracles and oddities happen. But no one treats them as routine.

    • Seventy Fahrenheit on my front porch in February…

      now a three foot drift in the same place, March the same year…

      Must be Ontario.

      • Kate Paulk

        Or Pennsylvania.

        • Did you get any lake-effect? In truth, it wasn’t much of a storm up here. The usual March kind of thing we always get, nothing spectacular. The weather services were calling for the End Of The World again, but I barely had to blow out the driveway. One big drift.

          • Kate Paulk

            No lake-effect here. Just a crapload of snow. It’s more than we typically get at this time of year, but not out of line for winter storms in general.

  3. This is why I need my beta readers. “Where the heck did that come from?”
    Or the one I just got. “You spent so much time with the car at the start, but then it disappeared. It’s like the gun on the mantle that never gets used!”

    • Hero lovingly describes gun and waves hand at kukri mounted beneath. Later on, mother-in-law wrinkles nose about that nasty knife above the mantle. In last-moment emergency weapons grab, Hero discovers that gun has been safety bolted to wall (is too corroded to load and use) but very sharp and lovely kukri is available and fits his hand perfectly, and … [Um, yes, I do own a kukri, why do you ask?]

      • aacid14

        What happens to unruly students…

        But it’s not as much the nonuse of chekov’s gun as the disappearance of it. I’ll actually liken it to actual investigation. If the criminal outsmarts pursuer by hiding transmitter somewhere until it dies the reader can marvel at the criminal competence. Purely not bothering with transmitters just looks like negligence. Same with writing.

        • Kate Paulk

          If Chekov’s gun just vanishes, that’s a problem. You need to have someone notice it’s missing and report it stolen so you can have a nice complicated subplot about finding it and getting it back so it can be used in the last act.

          • “Mr. Chekov, where’d your phaser go?”
            “I don’t know, Keptain.”
            “You’d better find it, Mister.”


            • “That’s not a phaser, Mr. Chekhov.”

              “Eets a family heirloom, Keptin. Russian inwention. A blunderbluss.”

            • There is a little detail about how McCoy forgets his communicator on the planet of Mafia Gangsters.

              In the comics Kirk is on trial, supposedly for breaking the Prime Directive and his enemies try to haul up representatives of the various civilisations Kirk affected through his career. The Mobsters appear, threaten the Federation Council when it seems like Kirk is in trouble, return the communicator (the mib boss returning it notes Federation guards are really jumpy)… and give Koik his cut of da profits, to Kirk’s utter horror.

              Chekhov observes that its like all of The Keptin’s most embarrassing moments have come back to haunt him.

              Sulu agrees, saying that he keeps expecting Kirk to get buried under a mountain of tribbles.

  4. Christopher M. Chupik

    The problem is, reality can be very unrealistic sometimes. Example: the last year.

    • Kate Paulk

      Oh, yes. If I’d written 2016 nobody would have accepted it. Too unbelievable. Nobody would ever do that. What is it with killing off all these popular characters?

      The Ultimate Pantser doesn’t follow the rules of Story unless He feels like it.

  5. What bugs me is when stories feel like a point-and-click game.

    You know the kind, you click on the toolbox and it opens, then you click on the screwdriver and it goes into your inventory and you know that at some point you are going to use that screwdriver to open something else to get another piece of the puzzle.

    Some stories have that same kind of feel. You have a characters talking and one says, “I used to be a heavy equipment operator before I was a cop.”

    And you know that the only reason that line of dialogue is there is to set up a scene at the end where that character has to drive a bulldozer to save the day. Just like the screwdriver in the toolbox being the only tool you can take, that bit about being a heavy equipment operator is the only background information you ever get about that character.

    And also, too often, it gets brought up time and again, until the reader is just waiting for the scene where it becomes necessary so that he’ll stop talking about it.

    • Kate Paulk

      You need to be subtle about it, yes. The cop starts, and his fellow cops chime in with “you used to be a heavy equipment operator, now shut up!” Or instead of having to drive the bulldozer, he has to disable it in a way that won’t be obvious. And the reason he isn’t in heavy equipment now is he has panic attacks if he’s in the driving seat of one after a really nasty accident left him trapped in a dozer cabin for three days.

      Or something. Making it look like the obvious thing is actually something else can be fun.

      • Or tangential. Former farm kid has to do something about the bulldozer—well, it’s heavy equipment, he can figure something out, right?

  6. Mary

    Infuriating when you throw in something to add in local color and it grins and announces, I’m Significant and Will Matter Later.

    (Without, of course, explaining why.)

    • *grumbles about how even the damned inanimate objects and scenery have a personality*

    • I had one* of those. Lucky for me, it managed to give me a perfect climactic scene, when I actually didn’t have a good scenario in mind when I started.

      If you are writing a multi-part series, you can even foreshadow across books. My mom is a geology nut, so I know a lot about geology just by osmosis, and even scenery descriptions can be foreshadowing. See Robin Hobb’s Forest Mage series, where a particular kind of rock is shown to be of interest to a geologist, and it takes a couple of books to get to why a granite/quartz rock might be of serious interest. (People who have paid attention to California’s history might know why.)

      *”Just one?”

      • Mary

        One explained I was all wrong about how I had thought that the heroine would defeat the villain, which I was already unhappy with.

    • When I was writing the fourth book in my series I realized that the way that the book had to end was going to wrap up the whole series,which ended up being about the relationship between two characters, one of whom didn’t even start out to be a main character.

      So I went back to my first book and I checked out the first line of dialogue that I had written for the second character and it was a line that, at the time I wrote it, was just a creepy thing to say, because I wanted that character to be creepy.

      However, once I realized what the overall four novel story arc was, it turned out that first line was a foreshadowing of the final reveal of the series–something that I had not planned out in advance.

      So either I got lucky, or my subconscious is way scarier than I want to think about.

      • Kate Paulk

        Your subconscious is way scarier. This is why a lot of people – especially pantsers – do their best writing when they can get their conscious mind to shut up and let the subconscious do its thing.

  7. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I think consideration of foreshadowing may also require consideration of pacing and tension.

    Tension is how at every point the words lead the reader to anticipate consequences.

    Pacing is the words flowing through the reader, and the reader through the book.

    Think of every cue or clue in the story written out on note cards. If the reader sits down with just the cards for a bit of foreshadowing, they could figure it out. You want to have a bunch of different cards in front of the reader, and use pacing and tension to keep them flipping through them fast enough that they get to the end before they put everything together.

    • Kate Paulk

      Quite. You can use the pacing to offset the foreshadowing or disguise it so that when the reveal comes the reaction is a good one and not a flying book.

  8. mrsizer

    I’m assuming Pam’s entire short story (novella?) Utopia is foreshadowing of a Xen-worthy challenger. One can at least hope…

    • Of course. Poor Xen. I’m having to escalate to multi-world cyborg mentalist Empires to properly challenge him. And, ahem, check out _Saturday Night_.

  9. One way to foreshadow without putting neon lights on it is to have it be part of a lot of somewhat relevant information. You have an interview with a new employee, and ask them a lot of questions, and only one of them is going to be critical, but the rest help to give a picture of who this person is. You have a vivid description of a room in a spaceship, all of which is important when the side gets a hole to vacuum (because of all the objects and angles critical to fixing the problem), but only one piece of info—the hole patch kit—is truly critical.

    Or you have a character who is a liar, and this is a known quantity, and when one of their things turns out to be true, the other characters could miss the foreshadowing that you don’t lie about certain things.