Writing: foreshadowing, twists, climaxes and the law of 3

Introducing a (major) event

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

The most common error in beginner-fiction is the “Deus ex machina”, the “god [that came] from the scaffolding”. We have a situation. Change is needed. Out of nothing a solution or climax is presented like it came dropping out of the sky.

The problem with this “solution” is that at that point, you have lost most of your more experienced readers as they do not accept a “smack, bang!” kind of solution without a proper introduction.

Difference between plot twists and plot development

Plot twists are sudden changes in direction of the development of the story. Until page 23 we think we are all going to Mars, but due to a twist, the destination is now Venus.

Plot development is the overall development of the story. The plot-development in general follows clear lines, informing the reader: we now go left. We just passed the river. Frank woke up ill and is now on his way to the doctor.


Climaxes are most effective when they are combines with certain twists. You put the reader off-balance and then kick the climax in. The bigger the surprise or the stronger the emotions at that point, the more impact this climax will have. One story can have several moments in which such climax is reached.

Foreshadowing? Twists

The foreshadowing we talk about in this post are related to twists in the plot. “Instead, they all died.” That kind of things.

The first thing to look at

When you write and edit your story, a proper introduction of your main events (and twists) is one of the first thing to look at.

Introducing your solution / climax

Introducing the solution / climax

Introducing the solution / climax

What you need to do is introduce your solution / climax at least once. This introduction can be one sentence, a short scene, a meeting, a brief introduction.

Doing this, your reader will know your solution / climax has a history, that the pathway it was following was bound to the story already.

1: What?

A foreshadow can be one single sentences. “Only the basement she avoided.” Or an introduction of a character or situation that will play a role later. “Hi, Joe said and introduced himself. Sorry I can not talk to you now, but we will schedule something later.” “The car did not start. Again. She twisted the key again, heard it cough in its feeble attempts.”

2: Lines / chains of events off screen

Consider any event as a part of lines (chains of other events) that continue off screen. When something happens to your character or the the worls around your character, when your character him/herself makes certain decisions, these events and decisions all have a history, presented as a line.

3: Choosing which event in that chain will cross your story-line

Where these chains of events and decisions cross your story-line is up to you. In fact: you are cherry-picking from all these events to select and combine certain elements that best fit your story. What will you show? What will you use? How will this be presented? How will this influence the rest of your story?

4: Loud or subtle?

Not all events (being foreshadows) have to be loud. Think what you want and what the best way is to “set” the reader. Will it be subtle? Will it be grand? How much will you give away? How much will you hide?

The law of three

The law of three

The law of three

The law of three is something I came up with as a rule of thumb to help myself avoid both the “Deus ex machina” en “overexposing it” kind of events in my own work. The law of three is this:

“All major events must have at least two moments of foreshadowing”

1: The “rationale” behind the law of three

There is a simple rational behind this “law”.

  1. People forget — People remember roughly 30% of what they read and before reaching your moment of climax they might already forgot one or two foreshadows you created.
  2. Two is the beginning of a pattern — One event is nothing, two starts to become a pattern.
  3. More than three becomes a risk — You like your climax to be a surprise. If you foreshadow your major event(s) too much, these events become predictable. After foreshadow #4 people will start wondering when that major event finally will occur. I usually start skipping pages and chapters at that point.

The risk-zone

The risk-zone

The risk-zone

The moment your foreshadows to one single event become more than two, you start risking giving too much away. After the second foreshadow, the reader will start picking up that this specific element is relevant.

As said before, the moment you start overdoing your foreshadowing, for instance: in the fear your reader “will not get it”, you start risking giving away too much, creating impatience with your reader: “When the fuck will this shit finally happen!?”

The matter of long and short fiction

As said before: readers forget.

When your story is below 12.000 words, 2 foreshadows to a major event will usually do. When your story moves towards 30.000 words and more, your reader might start to forget one or two of your foreshadows, especially when they were subtle. In longer fiction, three or four foreshadows might be needed just to remind the subconciousness of your reader that this specific element is relevant to remember for later.

1: Length of your foreshadow

The length of your foreshadow is relative tot the length of your story. A foreshadow in a novel can easily be a single scene of 300 words. In a short story between 1000 to 6000 words, a foreshadow of one or two sentences can already be sufficient.

2: Content of the foreshadow

The foreshadow is generally a very direct reference to the climactic event it foreshadows, presented in a way that the reader notices. “She never considered breaking a leg would be a real thing when entering the stage” is such a foreshadow. The reader is alerted due to the shape of the sentence, but when nothing immediate happens it will fade out.

When you repeat a similar reference to your climax: “Joe had been fired without reason,” you now have two references to something career-ending. When: “Jane was crushed by the car that came out of nowhere,” you, the reader start fitting pieces together. “Breaking a leg” indicated pending doom. “Being fired” the same thing, both leading to a possible end of a career. I, the reader, am basically waiting for that moment where you, the writer, will show me how that “end” will happen.

Combining several lines of development

Combining lines

Combining lines

In general one single story is actually a combination of several stories brought together on one or more story lines. Out of countless events happing “around” your story, you select the ones most relevant for what your want to tell and convey.

This multitude of story-lines within your story-world give endless room for play. You can have these lines move in and out of sight, create situations you can use to keep the story moving forward, create consequences out of those situations and come back on the results of those consequences later in your story when that specific story-line crosses your story-line.

1: Bringing it together

Where will you bring events together? Will they all come together at the same moment? Will you spread those events? Will some be standing on their own? How would you visualize that?

1: Playing with your reader’s expectations

Playing with your reader

Playing with your reader

You can use events and foreshadows to play with the reader’s expectations: to make the reader into a specific direction while you unfold a completely different story in the background. “Fight Club” and “The usual suspects” are two more extreme examples of such stories. Any and every murder mystery is based on this concept as well.

2: Planning your climaxes and foreshadows

Planning your climaxes

Planning your climaxes

There are several ways to orchestrate your story and your climaxes. You can spread them over the story, have them all at the end, start them from the middle, present a big one at the beginning, a big one in the middle, a big one at the end, build up from small climaxes to increasingly bigger ones.

Above are three examples of what is possible. All three models are symmetric in buildup: from small climaxes towards bigger and bigger, from small to bigger, to small again, from big to smaller, to big again. The repeating pattern is constant.

This is not necessarily what “has to be” or not even the only three ways you can plan, build and present your climaxes.


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