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Don’t take readers completely by surprise

Look for plot hints in subtle foreshadowing

I can’t remember where I read this, high school or college, or the name of the writer nor the publication in which he wrote.

But I do remember what he said: If you are writing something, be it a book or a short story, never take your reader completely by surprise. A totally unexpected surprise, of course, is a contradiction: If it were expected, it would not be a surprise.

In his book “Storm,” which I have quoted before, there is a fine example. Two young people who work in an inland California office drive over the pass to visit their respective relatives on the coast side. The visit over, they set out for home.

The car left temporary tracks in the rain-wet street as they start out and then this: “They turned the corner and were gone.”

That, I thought on a re-read, is the writer’s hint of what was coming.

The writer did not solve the question until days later, with the storm waning but not over, that two highway crew members standing on the edge of the drop-off mention the missing young people. They see coyote tracks in the snow at the bottom of the canyon below and send in a crew, which finds the badly battered car and the two victims of the fall.

There was another death earlier in the story. Here a farmer, desperate for rain for his crops, gets a weather report that indicates no rain.

“It’s too much,” he said. An hour later they found him hanging in the barn.

Stewart does not spend all his time on the deaths of his characters. There are several quite exciting “almosts” in which heroic action by the characters wins through. But my point is preparation of the reader for something that is coming is foreshadowed — if one can read the hint.

“Storm” taps into the lives and work of many people whose lives we know from day to day. But foreknowledge of something that is going to happen is not granted to us as we pursue our daily lives. Trying to do so is called worry.

So let’s not go there. Just if you are writing, there’s that long-ago hint from a now-unknown who cautioned us to give that hint of something coming.

It makes for a tighter construction, a more tightly-knit whole. And maybe it will mean that some 70-odd years after its publication, people will still quote, admiringly, from its pages.

Elizabeth Widel is a columnist for

The Chronicle. This is the 2,871st column in a series. She may be reached at 509-826-1110.

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