Thursday, January 31, 2008


As writers, we are completely aware of foreshadowing. The rule of thumb, especially in crime stories: if you put a gun on the table, be prepared to use it; and if you make more than one reference to something, you better explain its importance. I made this mistake one time in writing a short story about a young woman who returned home to visit a younger sister on her thirteenth birthday. Set in the 1800s, I introduced my character in the early morning hours before sunrise, as she rode through the valley in a horse-drawn cart, a common travel bag at her side. My error came when I mentioned the bag again, and then again, but never mentioned its contents. One of my readers was annoyed that I never revealed what she took with her. At the time, I thought it was a petty comment, given that the story was about so much more. Now, I realize that I could have saved my reader all the questions had I mentioned the bag only once and then left it alone. As a result of my inept skill, she anticipated some sort of foreshadowing, or at least some importance assigned to the bag, and then found disappointment when I didn’t produce.

The same holds true for me. While reading Madame Bovary, one scene struck me immediately. It involved a chemist, who scolded his son for the negligent oversight regarding the presence of arsenic. Once I came across that detail, I waited patiently for the poison to reappear. Thankfully, Flaubert didn’t disappoint me as the story drew closer to the end.

I must say that Madame Bovary has been one of the best, if not the best, of the Classics that I have ever read. The story, while tragic, touches on so many things that I feel are still important today. People tend to loose themselves these days in so much fantasy that they can’t see the real world in front of them. Sadly, they make unwise choices in their pursuits of Wanderlust. There are probably countless novels with the same theme, but Flaubert raised the issue beautifully with the person of Emma. Personally, I think this book should be a must-read for all young kids in their senior year of high school--or college, at the very least.

The book also reminds me of one of the Ten Commandments laid down by John Dufresne in his great book on writing, The Lie That Tells A Truth: Thou Shalt Confront The Human Condition (Commandment #9). In his novel, Flaubert confronts Emma's condition with care and precision. The reader is left with no doubt as to why she behaves so badly, why she so quickly falls into her affairs, and how she learns what everyone else should learn through her example--mainly that happiness doesn’t come with a pair of glass slippers. You can’t buy it, and you can’t find it through spending beyond your means. In tackling the issues, though, Flaubert doesn’t lay judgment down on Emma, or on her lovers; instead, he presents their cases, without any unnecessary Shakespearian justice applied against all, and allows the readers to draw their own conclusions. As writers, it's not our job to hold court. It's only our job to write the story and let it go where it will (if that's what it wants).

Before I close this entry, I’ll include one more thing on the subject of foreshadowing. One week ago, I went to bed feeling fatigued with aches in my joints and lower back. I should have seen then what was coming, but I didn’t. A night’s rest brought no reprieve and Friday morning found me calling into the office sick. By Saturday, I was bedridden, and I didn’t get out of bed until Monday morning when I finally dragged myself off to the doctor’s office. As it turned out, I had a classic case of the Flu, which hit me harder than anything I have had in recent memory and left me totally incapacitated. You know you’re sick when you don’t even want to do the things that you love--like reading and writing. There was even this point where I wondered if this was how Mozart died: coughing and wheezing, moaning and groaning, all while waiting for the Angel of Death to take his hand. Strange, I know. But that’s what happened. Oh well. As they say in gay ol’ Paris: C’est la vie! I’m just glad to still be among the living.


  1. Interesting thoughts on writing without passing authorial judgment, Stephen. That's so difficult to do when every word has a shade of innuendo to it, a connotation that so often drips with a bent one way or the other.

    It also begs the question of whether authorial detachment can also leave the reader feeling detached from the characters and story.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. You've given me something to think about. I see a stab at writing without judgment in the offing :)

  2. Stephen, Excellent post, thought provoking. Your discussion on foreshadowing is a great way to think of (not) overwriting - write what is necessary, present the thought/idea/object once, then circle back at the end for the kill.

    And, now I want to go back and read Madame Bovary again - it's been years!

    It is SO nice to see a pic of the real you and not the gorilla! I do hope you're feeling better... Peace, Linda

  3. Was the bag in your short story the same back that John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson had to retrieve in Pulp Fiction? We never found out what was in it.

    I may not be smart enough to post on this blog.

  4. Ed -- you are plenty smart. Anyone with enough cool mental prowess to reference Tarantino is plenty, PLENTY smart.

    Besides, we DO know that whatever was inside the mysterious bag in Pulp Fiction was very, very shiny. And we also know how very, very drawn you are to shiny objects...

  5. Stephen -- I love your blog. I check it every morning in the optimistic hope that you have posted something new, thus giving me something truly lovely to read while I sip my green tea.