If They Buy the Premise

If They Buy the Premise …
Terry Odell

A comment from my editor on my current manuscript, saying “This should have come up 200 pages ago” was a good reminder about using foreshadowing.

If they buy the premiseIn talking about comedy, Johnny Carson said, “If they buy the premise, they’ll buy the bit.”

The same goes for fiction. You have to sell the premise early on. You can’t stop to explain a character’s skill set, motivation, or fear at the height of the action. Nor can you bring in great-uncle Phineas in the last chapter of your mystery and reveal him as the killer. No fair using the deus ex machina method of resolving your story.

Consider Raiders of the Lost Ark. If the movie had opened with Indy in the classroom, would viewers have “bought” that he was really capable of everything he’d have to do in the movie? No, but by showing him in the field in a life-and-death situation first, we’ll accept that he’s a lot more than a mild mannered college professor.

Before James Bond pulls off his miracles, we’ve seen Q show him the gadgets that will save his life. We know MacGyver has a strong background in science, so he’s got the theory and knowledge to pull off his escapes using duct tape and a Swiss Army knife.

Foreshadowing isn’t only for the “Big Stuff,” though. You should consider making sure you’ve set things up for the “Little Stuff” as well. Think of setups as breadcrumbs you scatter for readers to follow.

You should set things up early on, and in a different context. Setup Scenes should occur throughout the book, and should set up minor plot points as well as major ones.

Example. In a scene from my When Danger Calls, my stalwart hero has been tasked with supervising two little girls who are playing with dolls. They come downstairs and show their mom the fancy braids he’s created.

Would my macho covert ops guy really know how to braid a doll’s hair, or did I stick it in because I thought it would be a cool way to move his relationship with the mom along? Would I have to stop the story to explain where he acquired the skill? Not if I’ve shown it, and better to do it in an entirely different context. Earlier in the book, readers see this:

Ryan leafed through the snapshots while he waited for the earth to start revolving again. He knew which one he wanted as soon as he saw it. He remembered the day it had been taken, right after he’d won third prize at the fair with Dynamite, his pony. He’d been so sure he’d get the blue ribbon and hadn’t wanted to pose for the family picture his grandfather insisted on taking. He saw the look in his mother’s eyes. So proud, she’d made him feel like he’d won first prize after all.

There’s no mention of him actually braiding the horse’s mane or tail, but it shows that he’s had experience with horses, all couched in a scene that’s about something entirely different—his emotional reaction to seeing old family photos.

Then, later in the book, when the girls display their dolls’ hairdos, Mom asks where Ryan learned to braid. One of the girls responds, “On real horses. He used to braid their hair. For shows.”

You’ve set the premise, so reader should buy the bit.

We know Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes at the very beginning of the movie. Because of that opening scene, we know to expect something with snakes, which adds to the tension.

Lee Child foreshadows almost everything he shows in his books. In Gone Tomorrow  a fellow passenger rambles on about the different kinds of subway cars in New York. That tidbit shows up front and center later on in a high-action climactic scene. And even the little things, that might not be significant plot points, such as the origin of the use of “Hello” to answer the phone will appear, letting the reader know that the character was paying attention, too.

What will lead to book-throwing by readers? How about this?

Hero and heroine are hiding and the villains are closing in. (Since I write romantic suspense as well as mystery, the genre requires both as protagonists, but it could be your hero and partner, or someone he’s been charged to protect.)

The hero is injured. He hands the heroine his gun and asks her if she can shoot. She says, “Of course. I’m a crack shot,” and proceeds to blow the villains away (or worse, has never handled a gun before, but still takes out the bad guys, never missing a shot). Not only that, but she is an expert in first aid and manages to do what’s necessary to save the hero’s life. Plus, she’s an expert trapper and can snare whatever creatures are out there. Or, maybe she has no trouble catching fish. And she can create a gourmet meal out of what she catches. All without disturbing her manicure or coiffure.

Believable? Not if this is the first time you’ve seen these traits. But what if, earlier in the book, the heroine is dusting off her shooting trophies, thinking about how she misses those days. Or she’s cleaning up after a fishing trip. Maybe she has to move her rock climbing gear out of her closet to make room for her cookbooks. You don’t want to dump an entire scene whose only purpose is to show a skill she’ll need later. Keep it subtle, but get it in there.

When you’re writing, it’s important to know what skills your characters need to possess. You might not know when you start the book, but if you’re writing a scene where one of these skills will move the story forward, and there’s no other logical way to deal with the plot, then you owe it to your readers to back up and scatter those breadcrumbs.

What about you? How do you make sure you’re not entering into deus ex machina territory? What kind of breadcrumbs do you scatter? How do you hide the clues?

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

24 thoughts on “If They Buy the Premise

  1. Great pointers here. To answer your question, I prefer setting up the premise in a way that clues in the reader while also ratcheting up the tension. In my latest story, the protag solves a crime thanks to his detailed knowledge of the gang wars of old Chicago. But the reader learns about this obsession early in the story when the boss ridicules it and warns the protag to instead focus on the job.

    • Thanks, Mike. Yes, you have to clue readers in, preferably without them knowing they’re being clued in early in the game, and then you can build on that. Readers like to anticipate–but they also like to find out they’ve been cleverly misdirected.
      Once the character has entered the “I knew something like this had to happen” territory, ratcheting the tension is critical.

  2. Good reminders, Terry. This kind of foreshadowing might be termed a “reverse Chekhov.” Remember Chekhov’s Rule? “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” Thus, if heroine is a crack shot in the last act, go back and put something in early to prep us.

    One of my favorite examples is from the movie Willow. [SPOILER ALERT] The titular character performs a “disappearing pig trick” in the first scene, then uses it in the climax to save the baby.

    • Given my writing process, I don’t have a “reverse” anything! I’m always going back and spreading breadcrumbs, but the exciting part is when I find they’re already there, that my subconscious knows what’s going to happen twenty chapters down the road.

      Totally unrelated, but I actually have a reference to Willow in my current WIP. Synchronicity?

      • “the exciting part is when I find they’re already there…”

        Or better yet, when you need a breadcrumb from the previous book in the series and find it waiting for you!

        • That backfired for me once, Sue … I was going to feature a minor character as the hero in my Blackthorne, Inc. series, which is romantic suspense, and I found a throwaway line in book 1 that indicated my hero had a kid. Sent me down an entirely different path–but it worked, and was fun to write.

  3. Great post, Terry…thank you. Now copied & pasted.

    I don’t know if this fills the bill as scattering breadcrumbs, but in my current WIP, MC Annie is an amateur butterfly expert, particularly Monarchs. In the beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to her collection of miniatures scattered throughout her home. She has studied and photographed butterflies since she was a child. She likes them because they “float above the world and its tragedies and only live 2-6 weeks, not decades and decades filled with sorrow, like humanity.”

    At the end of the story, one of her butterflies is found under a blanket with a broken wing. Finding that butterfly, Annie’s favorite piece, connects the reader to Annie’s character arc…especially when she decides not to fix it.

    She remembers that butterflies can fly with broken wings.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Deb. Whether these are breadcrumbs or not, it’s important to continue with character themes/traits throughout the book, not a single mention. And wrapping up a character arc gives satisfaction to readers.

  5. Excellent post, Terry.

    “the exciting part is when I find they’re already there, that my subconscious knows what’s going to happen twenty chapters down the road.”

    What a happy surprise when I do revisions to find my subconscious had already left breadcrumbs in the first draft without me being aware of it. The boys and girls in the basement are amazing.

    • I’m relearning the same thing, Deb. I need to let the boys and girls in the basement speak more often, after spending a number of years becoming a dedicated outliner. Aside: I’ve become a jigsaw puzzler during this pandemic, and am finding, once my wife and I get into the middle of puzzle, letting my subconscious drive and just choose a particular piece to fit a hole in the puzzle often works really well. Another lesson for my writing 🙂

  6. Hi Terry,

    Thanks for this! Foreshadowing is one of my favorite things to work on. I’m an outliner (becoming more of a “plantser” all the time) who uncovers a lot ideas while drafting, which in turn end up setting up (foreshadowing) a plot turn or a reveal.

    Having said foreshadowing is one of my favorite things in writing, it’s also tricky for me to get right. I plant a breadcrumb or a setup relying on instinct. Does it feel right? Beta readers are crucial to help me see if that worked or not. I’m embarking on writing my first actual mystery (as opposed to fantasy novels with a crime element) and I really need to up my game. Editing and beta reader feedback are going to be even more crucial 🙂

    Thanks again!

    • Glad to be useful, Dale.
      I’m always afraid if I know too much in advance, I’ll be too obvious in foreshadowing, so I never mind going back and leaving more (I hope) subtle clues.
      In one book, once I figured out who the killer was (I rarely know in advance–another way to keep from being heavy-handed with foreshadowing), all I had to do was make sure I had other characters who smoked so the killer wouldn’t be obvious.

  7. A great article, Terry!

    INDIANA JONES fails with the snakes. Indie is able to get past the snake in that first scene, he deals with his fear, and moves on. If he’d lost the first treasure because of his fear of snakes, THAT would have made the snake pit more tense.

    “Chekhov’s gun” isn’t just for a major plot point. In my romantic suspense GUARDIAN ANGEL, my hero has a nine-year-old son who is the primary financial reason he’s acting as a bodyguard against a group of killers after the heroine. That child isn’t on the page until the happily-ever-after final scene, but I seed him through the book in everything from his awesome half-grown puppy who helps save the day to his images on the wall in the hero’s house. The hero checks in on him a few times by phone so he’s always there in the hero and heroine’s heads, and the boy is the reason, long before she falls in love with the hero, that the heroine decides that her life is far too high a price for this little boy to be an orphan and takes matters into her highly competent hands.

    She also has a funny and sometimes scary backstory I seeded through the story for those highly competent hands even though she’s an architect who grew up with lots of money.

    Pro tip for the day, newer writers. Everything of emotional, character, and plot importance should be seeded through the novel. It builds believable layers.

    BONUS SNAKE STORY: My dad flew small planes for the RAF and Army Air Corp during WWII. He was based in North Africa for a while. At the beginning of one flight, he discovered that he actually had a poisonous snake in his plane. Being a Southern good ol’ boy, he wasn’t afraid of snakes, but it was poisonous. He flew his plane to a high altitude, the snake went dormant from the cold, he tilted the plane until the snake was within arm reach, and he tossed it out of the plane. That’s how you handle a snake on a plane.

    • Thanks, as always, for your comments, Marilynn, and for the snake story. I think Indie’s reaction to the snake in the plane shows that he’s able to overcome his fears. It wasn’t until the third movie that we see where that fear came from, which shows that you can hold off with back story.
      My parents were having a dinner party when I was in junior high, and Mom came in and woke me up because there was a snake in the living room. Maybe 6-8 inches long, a garter snake, but I was the household naturalist and was expected to deal with it.
      Where we live now, at 9100 feet, we don’t have a lot of reptiles who can deal with our cold weather.

  8. Thank you, Terry, for sharing your wisdom and that of your editor. Great stuff!

    • You’re welcome, Joe, although I’m sure those are lessons you’ve already learned. I won’t mention how long it took me to internalize them, or how many others shared their knowledge to drive the points home for me.

    • Thanks, Carol. There’s something about snake stories, isn’t there? When I worked for the Zoological Society in Miami, doing education programs, people would ask if I wasn’t wary about going to inner city schools. I said, “Why should I be. I have a snake.” Pulling a 7-foot python or boa constrictor out of its pillowcase always took care of the potential class disruptors.

  9. The more I do this fiction writing thing, Terry, the more I get “suspension of disbelief”. On the flip side, the more I do true crime writing, the more I get “instillation of belief”. Maybe I should stick to one schtick or the other, but I 100% believe in both you have to set the premise up right away and stick to it. BTW, I @#$%^&* hate snakes.

    • It’s about reader trust, I think, Garry. They come into a book with certain expectations, and I imagine they’re quite different for fiction vs non-fiction.

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