clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Warning Orders

At left, a good breakfast. It's the sort of thing you need if you're going to hit the beach and craft some serious fiction.

A warning order is the preparation instruction that advises a subordinate force of possible action and the commander's intent in anticipation of a mission. Often it includes information about suspected opposition, supporting elements and their disposition, and clarifies command relationships.

Sometimes it says you're going over the wall first. That little bit is called a "forlorn hope." Reading it in a warning order produces a particular type of digestive discomfort, so I'm told.

Writers use warning orders, too.

Sometimes we do it through foreshadowing. Subtle foreshadowing might be mentioning that three generations of a policemen in a protagonist's family have been killed in the line of duty and so the reader is prepared you're going to put this fellow through some terrible ordeal.

Digression ...

I know I call it subtle - though it is ham-handed to a smart reader - because it is a lot better than the hackneyed "dream" foretelling doom. When I was an advance reader for a (then) B- grade literary journal, every stack came with at least one "dream" involvement of some sort and foreshadow was the most frequent. You wouldn't think so, would you?

There's a great piece of lore about amphibious assaults in WWII which says that the Navy always fed the troops well - steak and eggs and the like - before sending them to some crab-infested paradise to slaughter other men. I have a friend that loves to serve a protagonist breakfast before shooting him. He doesn't do it anymore, but he loves it. I like it too, though I can't pull it off either.

Back at it ... here->

My point which is completely lost above is that we occasionally are going to do something horrible and so we need to prepare our readers.


We cannot write chapter two with a lovely young ballerina murdered, flayed, and hung in two halves on stage like a bisected Christ-on-the-Cross when our chapter one encounter with the antagonist has him yelling at a meter-maid as his culminating act. You'll lose the audience. You haven't prepared them. I know some of you are saying "Hell yes, I can cut the girl apart" and I guess my response is "yes - you can, in your unpublished diddling."

Now, you have the protagonist visit the antagonist on Plum Island (here) in full-body restraint and ask him about "Buzzsaw Bill," then have the antagonist escape and kill the ballerina for sport. We were prepared. You gave us a warning order : ohhh, man in full-body restraint is scary bad. I'll leave the lights on as I read the next chapter.

I know I will hear from friends on this who say "telegraphing breaks the shock and my writing is about shock!"

Yes, shock is good. Completely skin-blistering non-sequitur events are bad. They're bad for readers. Fiction is an emotional journey. Nobody likes their spouse looking up from Christmas Breakfast and declaring they're leaving you in an hour for the milkman and St. Croix.

Non-sequitur events are literary nuclear detonations. When does that mark a good day?


Look! Spooky house. Happy family moving in. Oh, there were murders in the house says the neighbor? Won't matter, will it? Then, shock. Little girl stuffed in the oven and roasted like an oversize Thanksgiving turkey? Wow, surprising. Didn't see that horrendous image coming.

Did suspect though ...did suspect (already left the lights on despite hubby whining as he tried to sleep).

If we surprise our readers within reason: great.

There are implicit rules on how big a story gap the reader can jump. Horror genre? Huge gap. Nearly superhuman abilities.

Cozy mystery? Somebody better build a ramp down the curb if you expect that story to go out.

If you give a little warning order, you get to do more with style and panache without setting an editor's hair on fire.

Jack's Chekhov rule: show me the homemade flamethrower in chapter one before you take it to the family reunion in chapter three.

Oh, and don't expect the antagonist to spend any scenes checking his mailbox for the rest of the book. This sort of plot device really cuts down on newsletter updates from her Aunt Marge.

Now, I'm warning you that I'm going to go and write.

You should be preparing to do the same. Habituate yourself to the desk in the laundry room so you don't surprise the dog when you start typing. Write something.

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