Charles Dickens was a master at creating marvelous hooks and using heavy foreshadowing. Let's take the first line of my favorite Christmas story of all time, A Christmas Carol. I love each and every version of it, will watch any movie version I can get my hands on:
"Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail."
I hear a great deal of argument about how modern 21st-century genre fiction is nothing but sixty-second sound bites and bursts of action jammed together in dumbed-down prose. I hate to say this, but that has been true of popular fiction for centuries--and if you look at this tale, you will see what I mean. The popular prose, at the time it was written, was more descriptive and leisurely than we enjoy nowadays, but even so, the really popular tales leaped straight to the action.
In that first paragraph, Dickens tosses out the bait, sinking the hook, and landing the fish (the reader) by foreshadowing the first plot point of the story--the visitation by Marley's ghost. We want to know why Marley's definite state of decay was so important that the conversation between you the reader, and Dickens the author, was launched with that topic.
He picks it up and does it again several pages later, with the little scene involving the door-knocker: "Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London, even including -- which is a bold word -- the corporation, aldermen, and livery. Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven years' dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change -- not a knocker, but Marley's face.
"Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part or its own expression.
"As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again."
You have to admit, it's a huge thing for a man of as limited an imagination as Scrooge was known to have, to suddenly see his dead friend staring back at him. This is also the second foreshadowing of the events that will follow and makes the reader want to know what will happen next.
At this point, we've followed Scrooge through several scenes introducing the subplots. We have met the man who, as yet, is named only as 'the clerk' in the original manuscript, but whom we will later know to be Bob Cratchit, and we've met Scrooge's nephew, Fred. These subplots are critical, as our man Scrooge's redemption revolves around the ultimate resolution of these two separate mini-stories--he must witness the joy and love in Cratchit's family, who are suffering but happy in the midst of grinding poverty for which Scrooge bears responsibility. We see that his nephew, Fred, though orphaned is well enough off in his own right, but craves a relationship with his uncle with no thought or care of what he might gain from it financially.
All the characters are in place. We've seen the city, cold and dark, with danger lurking in the shadows. We've observed the way Scrooge interacts with everyone around him, strangers and acquaintances alike. Now we come to the first plot point--Marley's visitation. This is where the set-up ends and the story begins to take off.
Dickens raises the tension, the bells begin ringing for no apparent reason and "The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.
Scrooge, of course, is dismayed and tries to deny the strange happenings. He desperately clings to his view of reality." It's humbug still!" said Scrooge. "I won't believe it."
However, he can't deny this phenomena forever, and refusing to recognize it won't make it go away. "Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before: he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.
"How now!" said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. "What do you want with me?"
This is the turning point, the place where Ebenezer Scrooge is faced with a situation in which he will either succeed or fail and what will happen to him, the reader can't guess. A deep sense of mystery now surrounds this miserly old man--what could possibly be so important about him that a man he cared so little for in life would go to such trouble as to return from the grave to save him?
In 1843 Charles Dickens showed us how to write a compelling tale that would last for generations. We start with the hook, use foreshadowing, introduce the subplots that ultimately support the structure of the tale, and arrive at the first plot point--these are the things that make up the first quarter of this timeless tale. Get these properly in line, and your story will intrigue the reader, involving them to the point they don't want to set the book down.
A Christmas Carol--what I've learned from Charles Dickens was first published on the writer’s blog, “Life in the Realm of Fantasy” December 15, 2014, by Connie J. Jasperson.
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger and can be found blogging regularly at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
by Connie J. Jasperson
It is a fact that sometimes books that were outlined to a certain storyline sometimes go off in their own directions, and the story is better for it. I haven’t experienced the sudden influx of magic into story, but I have had other random events throw a curve ball at me.
The fact is, when I sit down to write a fantasy story, there will be magic, and I will have planned carefully for it. I have three worlds with three radically different systems of magic.
2. In Huw the Bard people can purchase magic (majik) amulets and potions.
3. In the Tower of Bones series, magic and religion are intertwined. Aeos, the goddess, has decreed that all children who begin to show healing-empathy, or the ability to use the magic of the elements must be brought to the Temple and trained, for the protection of society in general. There are rules, certain things which can and can’t be done. As in real life, there are certain exceptions, but they too have limitations. No one is all-powerful.
Once magic enters your story, you must do some foot work, or your premise won’t be believable. It’s critical that you have finite rules for limiting how magic works. If your magic rules are too elastic, or you imbue too many amazing abilities into your main character, you will make them too good to be true. Readers won’t be able to relate to their story.
Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world. Remember, in fantasy, conflict drives the plot.
Without rules, there would be no conflict, no reason for the hero to struggle, and no story to tell.
First you must consider who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? Magic is an intriguing tool in fantasy, but it should only be used if certain conditions have been met:
In creating both social and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within your magic system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there has to be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.
Another important point to take note of is this: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when they affect the characters and their actions. Dole this information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and can be found blogging regularly at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.