Friday, October 8, 2010

Moving in Shadows

I've seen much talk on the blogs lately of how one goes about writing a story. Some folks call themselves "Pantsters" because they start with a character or premise and just start writing. The concept here is that the character and situation will take on a life of their own and tell the story.

On the other side are the "Plotters" or "Liners." These folks create their characters and then outline the story they want to tell in as much detail as possible. Almost in polar opposite to a pantster, the plotter knows, right from the beginning, what will happen in the story and what the outcome will be.

I suppose that I fall somewhere in between these two extremes. I like to bounce an idea around in my head for quite some time before putting anything down on paper or screen. I then make a list, by character, expressing what major events will take place, what growth my characters will experience and whether their actions are part of the main plot or a subplot.

Of course, much of my thoughts change once I actually start putting in the scenes. What I end up with in the end is sometimes nowhere near what I started with. But usually, the main plot remains intact.

Why do I choose to work this way? One word, foreshadowing. I like foreshadowing so much that I will often go back and write in sentences, paragraphs, or even whole scenes in order to drop some subtle hint of things to come.  Let me tell a little story by way of example.

Earlier this year a single friend of mine decided to try the online dating thing. He had recently moved from Georgia, where he was a police officer. He met someone and, after some mild online flirting, made a date. Now, before I go any further, I must remind you all that I live in Southeast Alabama. Nuff said 'bout that.

After a forty minute drive that seemed to take him beyond the realm of civilization, Mike arrived at the address. A single-wide trailer sat squat against a backdrop of tall thin pines. The long rutty dirt driveway and unkept lawn brought memories of the movie "deliverance" to the fore as his car bounced and scraped toward the the decrepit trailer.

Ellen met him at the front door and brought him into the kitchen to meet the family.

"This here's Joe John. He's my Uncle," Ellen said.

Joe John stood at the counter, a case of Corona beer and a small bag of limes crowding the sides of a small wooden cutting board.

"Hello, I'm Mike." Mike extended his hand.

Joe John made no effort to shake his hand. He simply grunted some undeciferable greeting before grabbing a knife and slicing the limes into thin wedges. He then opened each bottle in the entire case, pushing a lime wedge into the opening, and putting the open bottle into an otherwise empty refrigerator.

Mike was already starting to regret the date. But then he met Darlene, Ellen's niece.

"Hey, I'm Darlene," she said as her mouth widened into a broad smile exposing red mottled gums, and no more than three teeth.

Mike had a sudden sense of deja-vu at Darlene's smile.

Ellen had prepared dinner for them and told Mike that they would eat "Homestyle" outside on paper plates. Mike filled his thin paper plate with a slice of ham, overcooked collard greens, and soggy field peas. By the time he made it outside, the paper plate was soaked through to his hand and rendered useless.

They sat at a rickety picnic table. There was little talking but plenty of noise. Mike winced as Joe John and Darlene gummed their food, making sloppy smacking noises. He could not help but notice that Ellen's teeth did not seem to move in concert with the rest of her mouth. Dentures. He suddenly realized he was in the middle of nowhere eating sloppy overcooked food with a family that did not have a complete set of teeth between them.

After dinner, they all stood around a barren firepit. Ellen and Mike made small-talk while Joe John drank his beer without offering any, and Darlene stared at Mike through the increasing darkness. Darkness brought a cool breeze so they decided a bonfire was needed for ambience. There was no wood for a fire so Joe John went to work chopping up an old dresser and pouring gasoline on it. When he threw a half-smoked cigarette into the pile, they had an instant bonfire.

Standing around the fire, light and shadows contorting their faces into odd grimacing shapes, Darlene finally said to Mike, "Haven't I seen you before? You look familiar."

A sudden realization raced through his mind. The previous recognition he'd felt surfaced again and he knew that he had, in fact, seen her before.

"No," he responded. "I'm not from around here."

"Me either," She said. "I'm from Multry County, Georgia. I spent ten years there while serving a sentence for drug possession and distribution."

Mike decided to make a quick exit before her slow memory revealed that he was her arresting officer.
Ok, I just made this story up so I can only hope that it will help explain what I mean by foreshadowing. I inserted statements into this story at the beginning that I hoped would give the reader a sense of future foreboding. I think this kind of foreshadowing elevates the level of tension and prompts the reader to keep going in hopes of answering some question.

Specifically, what I am talking about here is the very first statement by Darlene that she thought she knew Mike from somewhere. One can write a scene or story by the seat of their pants and possibly miss the opportunity to add to the tension with this foreshadowing. By having an idea of your outcome right up front one can write this foreshadowing in.

On the other hand, one could always go back and add this in later, if the thought comes to the writer after the fact. I personally believe that one's level of understanding of their story and its direction determines whether they should write as a Pantster or a Plotter.

So, tell me readers, what is your opinion? How do you like to write? Are you a Pantster or a Plotter? And, how do you add foreshadowing while writing your stories.