Saturday, February 9, 2013

Opening with a foreshadow

I confess that I am a fan of foreshadow in the opening paragraph of a novel. It is an effective way to interject questions into the minds of the readers—and, as we all know, placing a question in the reader’s mind is the key to suspense. My favorite author, Harper Lee begins TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with an internal discussion as to where her story should begin. She opens her novel with the information that “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” Her next paragraph flashes back to a time before the broken arm debating when the story that led to the broken arm began. “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.” What Harper Lee has done is to foreshadow an event—the broken arm—in order to let the reader know that something bad will happen in the novel, make them question how that broken arm occurred. Then, she goes back in time to tell the reader the story of how that bad event came to be.

Another of my favorite authors, Dennis Lehane’s uses this opening technique in LIVE BY NIGHT, opening the novel with: “Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement.” It tells the reader so much, but so little. It makes the reader ask so many questions—most importantly, what did Joe Coughlin do to arrive at this moment. The paragraph goes on to add more questions, ending with this sentence: “And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had happened in his life—good or bad—had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.” The reader now wants to know, not only how did Joe arrive in the tub of wet cement, but how does this Emma Gould bring him to that moment. 

With a third person narrative that foreshadowed event can be the death of a main character, as in LIVE BY NIGHT, or the famous first line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, which reads: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” But, in first person narratives, the bad event is likely not going to be the death of the main character, although authors like Alice Sebold have made the death of a main character the opening sentences with great effectiveness. The first two sentences of THE LOVELY BONES are: “My name was Salmon, like the fish: first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

My penchant for foreshadowing in the opening paragraph is why I started my own novel, THE LIFE WE BURY, with:

I remember being pestered by a sense of dread as I walked to my car that day—pressed down by a wave of foreboding that swirled around my head and broke against the evening in small ripples. There are people in this world who would call that kind of feeling a premonition, a warning from some internal third eye that can see around the curve of time. I’ve never been one to buy into such things. But, I will confess that there have been times when I think back to that day and wonder to myself: if the fates had truly whispered in my ear, if I had known how that drive would change so many things, would I have taken a safer path, turn left where before I had turned right? Or would I still travel the path that led me to the murderer, Carl Iverson?

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