by John McCall

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Shadowing the Reader

Advice for Writers

Why Good Stories Go Unread
Twenty years ago when I first started critiquing manuscripts, I reviewed a fine novel—and tried not to groan. At first, I couldn’t understand my response. I knew all the hard work had been done. Its plot, a perfect knot, bristled with suspenseful complications. The characters thrived. The author had obeyed the first dictum of persuasion: "Show don’t tell." (In other words don’t just say: "Sonny loved Storm." Say: "Her purple curls drove him to madness.")

It was much later that I realized what was missing. The author had done everything but the easy thing: she had not given the reader a really good reason to keep on reading.

The writer had never bothered to shadow the reader—to follow the reader—to monitor reactions. Otherwise, she would have done something to shape those reactions before the plot and characters unfolded. And that brings us to another kind of shadow—the "foreshadow."

Foreshadowing, here, just means hinting at things to come. It’s well known that beginners tend to be scared of their own foreshadows. And the truth is they are sometimes right. If, by foreshadowing, you mean that the narrator or someone summarizes what will happen—especially, just before it happens—then suspense gets punctured. Or, rather the reader, who loves grade A suspense—"what’s going to happen?"—will have to settle for grade B suspense—"how will it happen?"

 That strategy is almost always a mistake, especially in view of the range of techniques, suitable for almost any kind of novel—whatever it stresses—plot, character, background, or theme. And, when I first presented material on foreshadowing, it was the technique I emphasized. (To give you an idea of my preoccupation, I gave a talk called "Fourteen Ways to Foreshadow in Fiction.")

Well, I was forgiven, but I’ve learned that if we want to avoid poor technique, it’s best to begin with feelings. Even those as elemental as a comic book. Only feelings (subtle or gross) can tell whether the techniques work. Even sophisticated critics like E. M. Forster admit that the questions that come to the reader are crude. So begin by asking yourself the crudest of questions.

What’s the difference between writers and artists—I mean con artists? That’s right: none. What’s the difference between us and honest traders? They find a need and fill it. We gotta create the need.

Meanwhile, let’s create something else—your hero— male or female here (with apologies for language, where needed, here and elsewhere). I mean your real hero—the one all the others depend on, the one you never mention in your novel. That’s right: your reader.

Now even the most ambitious (or omniscient) author won’t claim to create the person who reads the novel. But writers do create that bunch of responses which make up the reading experience. Since the person would not be a reader without them, it can be said (if only barely) that the writer creates the reader.

But what shall we call that reader? Naming it is hard. It’s not like some person (who’s a reader) that we happen to know—say, a cousin in Pittsburgh, who can’t stand our plots. No, this reader is an idea—without age, sex, and statistics. It’s not a him or a her. Its a "Herm." (So from now on we’ll just use the word "reader" and "Herm" interchangeably.)

But in the midst of the thousand writing chores—how can you keep poor Herm in mind? Well, since I believe people remember the most ridiculous things best, I would like you to mentally draw a cartoon of one reader, or rather, the reactions you would most like to induce. I mean—ideally—the kind of reaction that a reader might get from one of the classic short stories I’ll be quoting from. (You can find them in Seventy-Five Short Masterpieces, edited by Roger B. Goodman and published by Bantam Books.)

Well, since Herm has existed for centuries, it is no sin to think of those responses in antique terms—even cliches. Imagine, if you will, a "furrowed brow." Now, right beneath in the middle of Herm’s forehead imagine a big, wide eye. That will stand for the innocent trust that your story is true. Just below it—a nose the size and shape of an avocado. (I leave the color to you.)

What’s it mean? Just what you think. Something more powerful than suspense and belief combined. For to get either response, you must first of all be read. And, external circumstances—like book jackets, aside, that means the writer has to create curiosity in your prospect. (Yes, lets call that person who might or might not read you the "prospect.")

If knowledge is power’s lever, then there’s only one way the writer has it over every prospect. The writer knows what’s coming and the prospect does not. That means making prospects realize there’s something they don’t know. If you impart a sense of bliss-less ignorance, you’ve spawned the germ of a Herm. You have tickled the need to nose.

Not that I’d encourage coyness or distracting delay. And omissions of fact can seem to a reader like carelessness, especially a fact known to your viewpoint character. Foreshadowing is first of all sharing. Even so, I’d repeat this cycle at every good opportunity— stimulate then satisfy the reader’s quest. Tickle and relieve with life’s own vibration, and you’ll be a hero to your Herm.

Foreshadowing does mean hinting at what’s to come, but it’s time to refine the meaning. For example, "what’s to come" to the reader may well be from the character’s past. Moreover, things in flashbacks should forecast the character’s present and future.

Carol Hoover (my valued friend and a sage of fiction technique) aptly calls foreshadowing from the past "backshadowing." For convenience, I’ll continue to use the terms "foreshadowing" and "future," but everything I say applies equally to the past in predicting its future.

Either way, foreshadowing is really an imperfect representation of something to come to the reader—basically, a minor thing that suggests (that is, "imperfectly represents") a major thing in the wings. How is a shadow minor? It’s minor in that it’s either a small event; or at some distance in time or space; or it happens to some minor character before it happens to your Herm right now in a big way.

To get some more detail, let’s consider an example. What else?—"a dark and stormy night." Why was it so popular that it became a cliche? Let’s go back to the time when the Gothic tale was new, and we are inventing "dark and stormy" (though the device has even earlier roots).

We’ll say a poisoner is at work in our novel. We want to hint at the evil. Suddenly, the words come—"a dark and stormy night." Eureka! That’s enough work for one day—we can get drunk ‘till three. Why? Why are we so pleased? Because it’s so minor. How so?

A. Unless lightning splashes or a hurricane ensues, it’s likely to be less critical than the poisoning. It’s a minor event.

B. It’s out there at a distance.

C. If the weather becomes a character at all, it will be a minor character compared to our poisoner.

Could it get any more minor? Things can always get less. What if, instead of happening, the event was only guessed at? Think small:

"I’ll wager it’s overcast in Transylvania," she says, pouring out his vial.

Of course, you can always throw in a prophecy. The poisoner, for instance, can say, "In a deep dream I saw jackdaws pecking at my fingers as I swung from a righteous rope."

But I think prophecy tends to give too much away.

So foreshadowing comes in several flavors, but how can they help our Herm? Let’s find out.

The great ape King Kong strains against his chains—then later breaks out and climbs a tall building. Scarlet O’Hara swears, "I’ll never be hungry again," then after that starts acting like a swarm of carpet baggers. And in a Hitchcock movie, a shadow scares worse than a shot.

It’s not the assassination that gets you, it’s all the little hitches before the gun gets cocked. So what do Scarlet, Hitch, and Kong all have in common? They each give a hint of things to come; in other words, they all foreshadow. What for? It guides us logically towards Kong’s break out. It convinces us that sheltered little Scarlet will shove convicts around. It heightens anxiety to the point of fear-shuddering suspense. And even the quietest stories have to live off the interest.

But to find out how you can sharpen your effects, just where you insert a shadow into your own manuscript, let’s take a look at the chart.

  For  Suspense For  Belief


1. Promise conflict 4. Plant seeds (e.g., skills, "weapons")
Character 2. Suggest contradictions 5. Forecast changes (e.g., hint at the end at first sight)
Background 3. Raise questions, then smuggle in facts 6. Persuade with symbols (Don’t invite debate with messages)

As you see, this chart is obviously not something many writers would want to use in the warmth of composition or even perhaps in the cold draft of revision. I use it only because it shows the connection between several ideas in this chapter.

The chart says that foreshadowing intensifies the impact of your novel by promoting suspense over and belief in your plot, characters, and background. I’ve chosen these common terms so you can combine this information easily with information you’ve got from other sources in or out of this series. But use the words that mean most to you. Call it your people, your plot, your premises. Call it the what, the who, and the how. Don’t let the words interfere.

Let’s pass quickly through points one through six, halting only at point five, the heart of this book’s subject, since forecasting development—or decay—of character is the thorny crown of the novelist. Because we’re crocheting a Herm, we’ll treat each of the desired responses in order.

Furrows in the Brow
Let’s start with point one—the promise of conflict. It has the big advantage of being both the most urgent and the easiest to come up with, at the beginnings of novels, chapters, or scenes. You know the extent of the struggle to come. Just hint at it.

Here’s an efficient example:

"As soon as he entered the compartment, he knew there was something strange in it."

Here’s another:

"Now that a hundred years have passed, one of the scandals in my family can be told."

Was it a scandal? If it wasn’t, don’t promise one, not with a straight face, anyhow. If you promise blood and strumpets, don’t serve up tea and crumpets.

Point two—suggest character contradictions. Or contrasts. Or major and minor keys. Aristotle tells us that characters should be consistently inconsistent. Fine, but give the reader a glimpse of the contrast from the start. The deer-stalker cap and the Sherlock pipe in themselves suggest the intellectual and the hunter. Let the reader delight in the interplay of forces whether inside or outside the skull.

Now, what the unadulterated background tends to promise is boredom. Writers fight it in many ways (point three). One of the best is to split it into molecules and put them in motion. Another is to raise a question first—preferably, one that the background can answer. Ideally, each element in the background raises hopes or fears as it appears—even though what was an opportunity may turn into a threat. It can happen when an enemy captures an arsenal or the lover you thought was yours.

Whenever you have an exposition or a lull, raise questions—not just in the mind but in the heart. Yet, there can be no anxiety if the story is not believed.

Trusting Old Eye
Foreshadowing can promote belief. For example, it can set your story up by planting all kinds of necessary information (point four). Carol Hoover stressed the point in many ways—for instance, in introducing your viewpoint characters early on. This is just as true of "weapons" and skills—if the hero is good with her mitts, let us know from the start.

But you can plant anywhere—on the last row as well as the front, the end needn’t be the end. What’s that mean? It means that by planting hints at the end of your story, you can encourage the reader to supply an ending after the ending you describe. Since the reader has supplied it, Herm is less inclined to doubt it. (Besides, in fiction implication always makes the best dessert.) Speaking of which, it’s about time for another poisoner.

In one story, a poisoner expects a client to come back for an untraceable but very expensive prescription. He figures his customer, a young man, will need it after using a potion that will make his beloved fall all too wildly in love with him.

At the end, the old poisoner sells his love potion for a dollar and says, "I like to oblige...." Then customers come back later in life when they are better off, and want more expensive things:

"Here you are." he says, proffering the bottle. "You wilt find it very effective."

"Thank you, again," said the young man. "Goodbye."

"Au revoir," said the old man.

The end. But the reader foresees the next meeting.

It’s a beautifully crafted story, but all it takes to plant information—at minimum—is patience and the same kind of restraint experienced writers use with background—giving it bit by bit.

Prognosis, Sniffles, and Thermometer
Dealing with our next subject, character change (point five), however, may tax the novelist. To know just how a character feels and acts at each phase takes insight.

Novelists are lucky that few minor characters really need to change much. Those that don’t change, the critic and novelist, B. M. Forster called "flat," those that do change, "round." He favors both but warns against "bubbles"—characters presented as static throughout, suddenly pretending to change.

Considering such dangers, it seems best not to rely on any one approach. Show insight, but clinch it by forecasting. How? Let’s take our images from the sick room. Why there? Let’s see what happens to sick folks in fiction. I quote:

"One wintry evening when she had been to the opera, she came out shivering with cold. The next day she was coughing wretchedly. A week later she died."

Typically, of course, such events will not follow each other with such rat-a-tat-tat rapidity. But there’s nothing more depressing than the life tables of actors who cough in Act I.

That’s not all there is to forecasting change, but it’s a start. Let’s divide forecasting methods into types—the "prognosis," the "sniffles," and the "thermometer."

The "prognosis" covers any kind of prediction. It includes not only prophecy (already mentioned), but a vow like Scarlet O’Hara’s, or a hope. It can be expressed in many ways—a comment in a yearbook, for instance: "Trusting that Rocco will make good," signed by Miss Donahue, his teacher.

The story ends: "Miss Donahue would have been proud." At this point Miss Donahue stops being a prognosis and becomes a thermometer. By that I mean she gives the reader a way to measure Rocco’ s progress. Rocco could not have said, "Goody, I made good," half so convincingly.

Thermometers are often most effective when they are rituals—set interchanges—games, for instance, between people. Remember the story of the two young secretaries who for a long time had played the game of asking each other: "What would you do with a million dollars?" Remember, they went into a shop and found out that real pearls cost much more money than they had thought.

Next question: "So what would you do with ten million dollars?"

To help convince us the game had been going on for a long time, the author says things like: "She answered as if by rote." A change in routine can prove to the Herm that your worm got turned.

Let’s move from the thermometer to the sniffles. "Sniffles"—the kind that turn into pneumonia—refer to the practice of showing a character’s destiny from the start on a small scale. Often the destination is shown by some physical object that reminds Herm of the inner journey. The inner life of our first poisoner, for instance, may turn out dark and stormy. And if Aunt Bertha dies? Show her looking very still when we meet her—though she can be a flurry of management decisions the very next minute.

Because first impressions are often both powerful in feeling and forgettably trivial in fact—both things help prepare your Herm for convincing surprises. The forecasting acts like a subliminal image on a single frame of movie film, preparing the subconscious.

"Sniffles" can certainly point to good news or improvements, but often point the other way—as in a story that begins: "the tired voice went on. ..over tremendous obstacles." An understatement as it turns out in this story. That speaker had been dead a week.

Let me recap these techniques for forecasting character change:

bullet the prognosis—meaning expectations, not just unmotivated and over-convenient prophecies but fully motivated wishes and vows;
bullet the thermometer—habits and attitudes put in place that can register change, including the imaginary "clock" said to tick through every novel;
bullet and sniffles—those early symptoms of later change.

You’ll have to work harder than Sophocles on forecasting. He could count on his audience for pertinent information on the relevant myths. Even so, the novelist should never assume that he or she knows better than Herm.

Western Union
Which brings us to point six—persuade with symbols: don’t invite debate by stating your message.

I can’t agree with the philosopher who said, "If you’ve got a message, send it Western Union." In fact, Elizabeth Bowen, the great writer on writing, says we’d better tell the truth about something to make up for the fib of fiction.

Modern readers often want a message, but they usually don’t want you to tell it to them. If you’re telling a story that attacks the media, don’t preach about information pollution. Show some TV van or newspaper delivery truck spewing noise and gas from a cut out pipe. (Usually, of course, symbols are much smaller than a truck).

Let Herm experience your idea through your story. If you state it directly instead, you may very well be setting up the only circumstance under which the independent-minded reader would challenge your idea. As intellectual independence, this tendency to seek answers is your great ally. Without it, who would bother to read?

So—should you begin at once, in your first draft, to lure your reader into reading, with shadows and light? Not necessarily. It’s often best to let the story tell itself first, then go back to point the way once you’ve travelled to the end. But sooner or later, turn around to face the furrowed brow, the trusting eye, and the avocado nose of the figure that shadows you.

This article appears on the website “Ben & Verse” (to view click The website has two parts – one part uses jingles to update Ben Franklin; the other is a miscellany called “Phony Pearls of Fictitious Wisdom.”

This article first appeared as a chapter in "How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel", edited by Carol Hoover, Writers Mentor Group, published by Ariadne Press, 1990, ISBN: 0918056047. At last check, it was out of print but available at 113 libraries, including public libraries in New York City and metropolitan Washington DC, for example.


Foreshadowing and Brevity:
Like foreshadowing, brevity thrives on implication. There can be no brevity, no compression without something larger (some fact, feeling, or conception) to compress. Implication finds shelter in the brief, straightforward question or statement.




John D. McCall

Apprenticeship smacks of North America’s colonial past when indentured cobblers worked for no pay. But in this article, apprenticeship means learning a craft through example. Writers have always learned from each other – encouraging trends, such as brevity.

Is the need for brevity accelerating? Is careful revision no longer enough? Must writers soon become misers of words? And, if so, how? Can writers today learn much from the past? The challenge of brevity may trouble some writers; others may find it interesting or even amusing.

Yet the rage among readers does not amuse writers.


Many readers, like drivers, want to “get there” – and fast. Then faster and faster. Electronics speed up expectations -- think of instant e-mails (still in use at this writing). This verbal impatience parallels road rage: readers “honk” at one story and reroute through another. To keep up, writers try shortcuts – with allusions, for instance. The name “Cleopatra” or “Cassandra,” if known to their readers, can replace a paragraph of description.

Writers, of course, can find other shortcuts in textbooks, digital or paper. They will probably always be, by far, the best guides to brevity, summarizing the experience of countless writers; but should another approach be added in view of growing pressures?

Of course, the desire for speed might slow or reverse. But what if impatience starts ignoring every crosswalk? If the usual shortcuts cease to suffice, experienced writers may need to revamp their craft, and aspiring writers may learn in new ways. But how?

Writers know that cutting can wound tempo, clarity, and continuity. To avoid misplaced brevity and other missteps, dedicated writers might reflect on those who’ve inspired them and review their techniques. “Learning from the masters” is not just a cliché but also a well-tested strategy; yet one’s favorites might not be brief – or brief enough.

For brevity, eventually and reluctantly, many writers might turn from their favorites to word-stingy misers. The familiar Bartlett’s Quotations, of course, samples hundreds of aphorists (Voltaire, Juvenal, Swift). In American letters, some would cite the sayings of Poor Richard. Yet even Franklin’s admirers (and many writers are not) would think a study of the “Almanack” a very menacing chore.


Can writers apply what’s learned from a complex mentor -- without real effort? Not with my website. Can it reduce the difficulty for some writers? Biased, I think so.

My website began as something like child’s play. Apart from my intimates, sixth-graders were my first readers. They updated quotes from Franklin and added fresh perspectives.

The website’s format is childishly simple. It has two columns. One has a quote from Poor Richard’s Almanac, the other my rhyming paraphrase. It’s in modern language and usually shorter than the quote. Carla Beard, the Web English Teacher, prefers the paraphrase to the quote, but that preference comes from her patience with juvenile rhymes.

With these links, levity makes for brevity.


All the links below are alphabetical and include light verse. I hope the flawed verses – really just jingles – may lighten learning chores and help with recall – of allusions, for instance.

The allusions to mythology (click here to view) and biography (click here to view) are in a form of verse called the “clerihew,” named for its “mad inventor.” Familiar allusions to save explanations – a clever, underused trick.

For many tricks, review the sayings from Poor Richard’s Almanac – with modern paraphrases: in monthly issues (click here to visit) or for all the issues (click here to download) from a link called “Ben-to-Go.”

What would the shrewd, well-balanced Ben Franklin say to all this attention – as the source of wisdom on brevity? Maybe: “Fine, but don’t burn your textbooks.”

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