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.