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Writing Level-Up: It Comes Back

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Sep 14th, 2010
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My seven year old daughter is a deeply sensitive person. And she never forgets. Anything. I forget that she never forgets, and then it bites me in the ass.

We’ve had several beta fishes over the last year and a half. When the first one died, it was a big deal. In fact, it was pretty devastating for our daughter who found the poor little fish floating with “strange eyes” in its tank one morning. We did an official family funeral in the front yard. My daughter decorated a box for the fish, and even set a delicate white vase with flowers picked from the front yard over the shoe-sized hole we dug. I said a few words. She wept. (And so did most of us, watching her.)

We purchased a new carmine red beta-fish the next day. This one didn’t last half as long. In a tragic water-changing incident, it leaped out of its temporary bowl of water while the tank was waiting to get rinsed. My wife found the dogs nosing it on the living room floor much later. So, after some tears, we decided another funeral was in order. For some reason I can’t recall, we couldn’t do it immediately, so the body was set on a folded paper towel inside a powder-blue teacup, then set in the fridge for storage.

And there it sat … for months. A few days ago we were cleaning out the fridge (as part of a larger moving out/cleaning effort). I spotted the teacup tucked into the way-back of the fridge. I thought, surely she’s forgotten by now. We’ve had a third fish which has been alive and kicking for a while now. And even if she hasn’t forgotten, it probably isn’t as big a deal now, right? Besides, I was ready to be done with all this cleaning. My wife, who knows much better than me, gave me a skeptical are-you-sure look. Yes, it’s fine. So I tossed the fish’s shrunken body into the trash.

Huge mistake.

If this were fiction, you wouldn’t believe what happened next. But it’s not. The very next morning, my daughter shuffled into our room at the crack of dawn, wrapped in her fuzzy blanket, rumply-haired and wild-eyed and said to my wife, “Mommy, I had a dream that you flushed my red fish down the toilet. He’s still in the fridge, right?”

Shit. Shit. Shit.

My wife croaked a response, “Talk to your daddy about that.”

Needless to say, I had to face the wounded and scalding stare of my daughter’s watering eyes. I think I muttered some weak excuses. What a complete tool. Fortunately, with my wife’s quick-thinking assistance, we rectified the matter and immediately had a second, very touching funeral.

On the drive to work, this got me to thinking about how some powerful moments in fiction happen when an author plants the seed of some drama that bears fruit much later in the story. A character tries to sweep something under the rug, and the result comes back to haunt him much later. When it works, it can be a great surprise, but one that, when looking back, follows naturally from the preceding narrative. You’re surprised, but thinking, “Of course!” Or maybe you saw it coming, but when it happens it’s not dull or predictable, it’s satisfying. A good example of this–watch me reach for the universal nerd common ground–is Han Solo getting frozen in carbonite in Empire Strikes Back. Stiffing Jabba had to pay off at some point.

Another version of this is Chekhov’s Gun, which is really an example of foreshadowing. Chekhov said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” A recent example that stands out for me is in the second book of Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Game series. The games master, Plutarch, flashes the main character, Katniss, a watch with an image of a mockingjay on it (which is the symbol of the rebels, but also being worn by fashionable elites in the Capitol).

It seems to me there’s a delicate balance between being so subtle that the reader feels like the results of the seed-planting come out of the blue, and so obvious that the reader thinks your treating them like they’re stupid. Personally I think I can tolerate the former more than the latter.

Anyone else have any good or bad examples of either version?


  • jeremy

    while reading 1st Narnia (we started with 2-7), Iz would light up recognizing details (like when the witch parks beside a lamp post in london.) even though, at 5, she could recognize characters before they were revealed and see what was coming, i think she experienced that same sense of satisfaction you mentioned in seeing the “other world” make sense in an unfolding larger context and/or our world as we are familiar with it.


  • Joe

    The “good” version of this is such a main-stay of classic mystery fiction that it has mutated into a genre defining rut. This is especially true in our modern versions of the old Conan Doyle works, i.e. the spate of “exceptional genius” serials on TV. In shows like *House*, *Castle*, *Bones*, and *Monk*, it is not only required that every detail come back in the final scene (following a single revelatory “I cracked the case” moment of course), but it must be innocuous at first glance and appear in the story for no reason. Couple that with the hard fact that the obvious answer is always wrong, and you can reconstruct the plot from the teaser trailer.

    I guess the cautionary tale is that an experienced reader will understand when you’re showing them something for no reason, even subconsciously, and will be unimpressed at the reveal. Better yet is to show elements with lesser meaning to the main story (but still some importance) and then reveal their tangential importance later.

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About Me

Ricardo Bare
Austin, Tx

Ricardo Bare is a writer and game designer living near Austin, Texas. Currently he works as a game designer for Arkane Studios, which in 2012 released Dishonored. Ricardo started his career in the games industry working on the Deus Ex series, winner of the BAFTA and numerous other Game of the Year awards.

Ricardo is the author of Jack of Hearts and Fool of Fate, the first two books in a young adult fantasy series.


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