Seekerville: The Journey Continues | category: Story Mechanics


Seekerville: The Journey Continues

It's Not the Idea That Counts

by Seekerville Guest Blogger Dr. Richard Mabry

The question that people ask an author is always the same. “Where do you get your ideas?” But it’s not so much the ideas that are the determining factor in a novel—it’s what you do with one after you get it.

Ideas are all around us. Each of my novels and novellas has come from an idea that started out as no more than an idle thought. Walking through a med school parking garage late at night led me to an idea about a kidnapping that occurs there, and resulted in Stress Test. Wondering how a physician would react to a phone call that conveys the worst possible news about his father culminated in Guarded Prognosis. Musing about how a physician would handle a potentially fatal infection in two patients when he has just enough of the curative treatment for one led me to write Miracle Drug. My wife, as we brainstormed, mentioned a female physician finding a cell phone that gives her the instructions that she’ll have to kill a patient to free her kidnapped husband, and it led me to write my latest novel, Critical Decision.

It's Not the Idea That Counts

No, the idea isn’t the thing that makes a novel. What sets us apart as writers is what we do with that idea. In addition to the fact that it’s impossible to copyright an idea or concept, it’s also unnecessary. If half a dozen writers start out with the same premise, each will produce from it a different manuscript. That’s called the author’s voice, and it’s unique to each person. Some writers finally find their voice, some seek it for years but never achieve the right way to put the words together. And, like a giraffe, a writer’s “voice” is difficult to describe, but you’ll know it when you see (or hear or read) it. It doesn’t depend on the idea or even the arc of the story that follows. It’s all in what we do with that idea.

Suppose that you actually follow up that idea by writing a novel. By putting together all the words, you’ve joined the small group that has gone beyond just saying “I should write a book.” What now? Resist the temptation to submit the first draft, no matter how good it seems. You revise, and revise, and keep on going until you feel it’s perfect. Then it’s time both to submit and to prepare for rejections. It goes with the profession.

Eventually, after a few rejections, let’s suppose you submit your novel and get it accepted. Congratulations, now you’re definitely in a very small minority. You’re a published author, and surely instant fame and fortune will follow. Right? Sorry. Your book could be one of a million that’s published this year. If your name is Clancy or Rowling, you can probably support yourself on your earnings. But the majority of writers hold down a “day job,” and write, not as a means of support, but because…well, they can’t notwrite.

What’s the point of this? It’s not necessarily warning the neophyte author of the pitfalls that lie ahead, although there are a bunch. It’s pointing out that, despite the question that is asked of every author about getting an idea, the hard part of writing is what you do with that idea. There’s a long distance that separates an idea and a published novel. But some of us will keep on going down that road. And that’s what makes us who we are. We’re authors.

Ready to travel down that road? C’mon along. It’s hard work, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Ruthy here: Doc has graciously offered a copy of "Critical Decision" to a commenter... so let's see what the lot o' youse has to say today? Are you a writer or a reader? And where are you on your journey in life?

It's Not the Idea That Counts
Dr. Richard Mabry is a retired physician, now writing “medical suspense with heart.” His novels have garnered critical acclaim and been finalists for multiple awards. In addition to one non-fiction book, The Tender Scar, he has written eleven novels and four novellas. The latest is Critical Decision.

 He and his wife live in north Texas, where he works fruitlessly to improve his golf game and tries to convince his family that staring into space is really working. You can learn more at his blog and web page, as well as finding him on Facebook and Twitter.


Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here.  

Today I want to talk a little bit about foreshadowing. It’s a wonderful literary device that, when used effectively, can really make a story resonate with a reader, can lead to a head slapping, “I should have seen that coming” moment.

First, what is foreshadowing and why might you want to use it?
Foreshadowing is the planting of a hint or warning of something to come later in the story. These hints can be overt, used by the author to create tension or anticipation, or subtle if the author wants to plant clues without being obvious.

The functions of foreshadowing include:
  • to provide clues or hints about things to come
  • to add an extra richness and dimension to your story for readers, even those who don’t consciously pick up on these hints
  • to provide a reward for those readers who are paying close enough attention to ‘get it’
  • to enhance the tension and/or anticipation in the readers
  • to provide a page turning quality to your story as the reader becomes eager to find out if they’ve interpreted your foreshadowing device correctly
  • to support a future ‘surprise’ occurrence so it doesn’t strike the reader as coming out of left field

So now that we know what it is and why a writer would want to use it, how would one employ it effectively?

First you need to decide what you want to foreshadow.
Of course, not everything needs to be foreshadowed. In fact, some stories don’t lend themselves to foreshadowing at all. Some surprises and twists work better coming out of the blue. And other events are not significant enough to warrant foreshadowing.

You also don’t want to wear out your reader with too much foreshadowing – doing that would mean you are overloading the story with set-up and are not providing enough story. This can make your story seem eye-rollingly melodramatic.

Foreshadowing should relate to something significant to your story - something improbable you want to lay a foundation for or a big event you want to subtly build toward.
However, this requires that you know what these ‘significant’ events are. So that may mean the foreshadowing info doesn’t get woven in until the second or subsequent passes.

There are two types of Foreshadowing

  • Direct Foreshadowing
    This is intended to be recognized by the reader as such and points to an impending situation or problem. This future circumstance isn't spelled out in great detail (or it wouldn't be foreshadowing) but there is enough information to lead the reader to author-directed suppositions. You can do this in a number of ways, including:

    Use of dialog – have characters discuss upcoming events, character attributes, or plans.

    Use of objects – show a weapon, letter, mask or other such item that is an obvious portent of something to come.

    Use of character reactions – have a character react to something or someone in such a way as to indicate there is more than meets the eye
  • Subtle or Covert Foreshadowing
    This is foreshadowing that you want the character to miss until the event it was building toward actually occurs. You can accomplish this by

    burying your foreshadowing breadcrumbs amid other details

    by having the information presented as trivial or in an offhand manner,

    by having the hint presented in a context that hides its true meaning or importance. The movie Sixth Sense provides a masterful example of this.


The mechanics
  • Do your foreshadowing as early in the story as possible.
    The farther the breadcrumb is dropped from the actual event or reveal, the more impact it has. And also make sure you scatter those breadcrumbs throughout, don’t drop them all in one place. But remember to use moderation – use just enough to make certain your reader doesn’t feel cheated by a twist she could never have seen coming, but not so much that your twist loses its punch.
  • Make sure the payoff fits the buildup
    If you’re going to foreshadow something, the readers, especially those who have been doing the work of finding your hidden breadcrumbs, are going to expect those breadcrumbs to not only lead somewhere, but to lead somewhere that wows them. Don’t disappoint.

Check it again - Is it relevant and organic
  • Does this bit of foreshadowing have the intended effect: If you’re trying to build suspense have you been explicit enough? On the other hand if you’re trying to lay groundwork for a plot element down the line, have you been subtle enough not to tip your hand? 
  • Either way, have you woven in your foreshadowing element seamlessly or does it feel forced? You need to make certain you are staging things appropriately for the intended payoff.


So that’s a quick overview of the art of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a skill that requires practice and finesse. If not done carefully it can do more harm than good to your story, rendering it melodramatic, overly predictable, lacking believability or too forced.
So what other tips do you have to offer on this topic? Or do you have any fabulous example from either books or film that you’d like to share?

It's Not the Idea That CountsForeshadowing

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