Or, for the socially minded: Keeping that blind date interested through dinner
Every story is your first meeting with the reader, another effort to seduce–to get a stranger to come along with you, to convince him or her to trust you, to keep reading, reading, reading until the last line.
As the evening begins, you must develop an air of anticipation, but without too much mystery. Your blind date, after all, has no reason to offer you blanket trust. So you present, in general terms, a sense of what the journey will be like, confident that if the pace of the evening is right you will hold your date’s interest all the way to the end.
The technique you’re employing is foreshadowing. Done properly, it distills the key elements of a story well enough to explain why the story’s worth reading, yet holds enough back to preserve internal plot points or sub-issues later in the story. It can be done in one phrase, one graf or several, depending on how you judge your audience’s level of need, their patience–and how talented a seducer you are.
Foreshadowing is an excellent variable to consider as you look for additional ways to refine your self-editing skills. In the same way you ask yourself: “Does my story contain enough perspective?” you also want to ask more deliberately: “Is the story complex enough to benefit from foreshadowing…and how much?”
Some examples of stories I thought employed this sensibility effectively:
1. Foreshadowing in a narrative treatment.
You may have a great yarn that can be told chronologically, but 98 times out of 100 you’re going to have to construct a set-up. Sometimes you pull a key moment from the middle of the story and begin with that. Other times you begin by summarizing the tale right out of the block, then beginning the more detailed chronology.
This Wall Street Journal story recounted Hollywood’s failure to make a movie out of a popular but quirky novel. The writer foreshadowed the essential quandary with tremendous speed and efficiency: four grafs (293 words). Then he threw in a subhead to underscore the rest of the structure–chronological, using individual years as subhead signposts–and was off to the races. Here’s the top:
In 1980, producer Scott Kramer acquired the rights to “A Confederacy of Dunces” for $10,000, and began trying to turn the hit book into a movie. Nineteen years, seven producers, six scripts, five studios, a lawsuit, and at least a half-dozen deaths later, Mr. Kramer is still trying.
A darkly comic novel that has sold more than 1,250,000 copies, “Dunces” is the tale of Ignatius J. Reilly, a corpulent 30-year-old self-proclaimed Medievalist who lives with his long-suffering mother, and roams the depths of New Orleans, grappling with an unforgiving modern world. Its author, John Kennedy Toole, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, 12 years after his suicide. The book was published only after Mr. Toole’s mother, Thelma Toole, pestered Southern novelist Walker Percy to read the manuscript. Mr. Percy pronounced it a “great rumbling farce of Falstaffian dimensions,” and prevailed upon Louisiana State University Press to publish it.
But the tortured tale of “Dunces” in Hollywood has Falstaffian dimensions of its own.
There has never been a shortage of talent who wanted to make it happen. The late John Belushi hoped to play the novel’s 300-pound antihero, Ignatius, as have at various times Dom DeLuise, Jonathan Winters, John Malkovich, Robin Williams, the late John Candy and the late Chris Farley. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” director Michael Apted and Harold Ramis, director of “Caddyshack,” wanted to direct. Six screenwriters have attempted adaptations. Shirley MacLaine still wants to play the mother. Yet for all the burning desire to translate one of the most acclaimed novels of modern times into film, “Dunces” has become snarled in an increasingly convoluted web of “creative differences,” ego clashes, rights disputes and pure bad luck that shows why movies don’t get made in Hollywood even more often than they do.
1980: The First Glimmer (That’s the first subhead, as the chronology begins in detail with the same character who led off the first graf:)
Scott Kramer was 23 years old, working as an assistant producer at 20th Century Fox, when an editor at LSU Press first slipped him some chapters from the “Dunces” manuscript prior to its publication. Mr. Kramer seized upon the novel, excited by what he saw as rich material…
You’ll often see writers use this structure (albeit less artfully). It resembles a double loop, or a figure 8: First, you loop quickly around the confines of the story, touching on the points that make it interesting. Then, once that foreshadowing is completed, you draw a longer loop that takes the reader narratively through the phenomenon. It’s almost like telling the story twice, but through two different prisms and at two different paces.
2. Foreshadowing to let the reader know she’s beginning a value-added story.
Some of the best news-features use one event to explore a host of social implications. They give the reader more than she might have bargained for. These stories often benefit from a structure that lets us know that the main event is connected to a series of other issues or questions. There is no formulia for this. You simply have to experiment to find language that quickly broadens the landscape. You have to be ambitious. You have to create a context the reader can use to prepare himself for a deeper examination.
The top of this story, written in 1999 by Jesse Katz about the upcoming execution of a female murderer, sought to prepare you for a discussion of nuances, contradictions and tough choices. It wanted to tell you by its voice (notice the string of questions in the third graf) that you might have to wrestle with your conscience as you read the story:
GATESVILLE, Texas–The debate over Karla Faye Tucker’s execution next month has everything and nothing to do with her sex.
Fairness dictates that it should not be a factor, that if we are to have a death penalty, it must apply equally to women as well as to men. The laws of Texas, home to the nation’s most active death chamber, make no mention of gender in determining which killers should be condemned. It certainly made no difference to Tucker’s two victims, both of whom died from a pickax in their chests.
But if it is so irrelevant, why has only one American woman been put to death since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976? Why has Texas, responsible for one out of every three U.S. executions, failed to execute a woman since the Civil War? Why has conservative Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, a death penalty proponent, publicly pleaded for Tucker’s life? And why have reporters from around the world lined up to interview her–“this sweet woman of God,” as a “60 Minutes” piece recently gushed.
“If it was Karl Tucker instead of Karla Tucker, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation,” said Victor Streib, dean of Ohio Northern University’s College of Law and an expert on female executions. “Nobody says it, because it’s not politically correct, but there is a gender bias in the system–a double standard for women and men.”
Women, of course, do not kill as often as men. And when they do, their crimes tend to be mitigated by domestic conflict–striking back at an abusive husband, for instance–as opposed to the predatory slayings for which the death penalty is usually reserved.
Even so, the numbers remain skewed. Women account for one of every eight people arrested for murder, but only one of every 50 sentenced to death. They account for one of every 70 people on death row, but only 1 of the 432 actually put to death in the last two decades–the exception being North Carolina grandmother Velma Barfield, a serial poisoner who was executed in 1984 for slipping roach killer into her fiance’s beer.
Tucker does not say that her Feb. 3 execution should be halted because she is a woman. Rather, she says it is because of the kind of woman she has become during her 14 years behind bars–caring, repentant and deeply religious, a born-again Christian married to a prison minister, who together believe they can help save souls as lost as Tucker’s once was.
“This is not about me trying to save my life; this is about the power of God almighty to change a life,” she said during an interview at the women’s death row here in Central Texas, which houses seven of the nation’s 48 condemned women. “The world may not agree with that. They may not think I deserve that. And quite frankly, I don’t deserve that. But it’s a free gift from God. He gave it to me and I received it. We all have the ability, after we’ve done something horrible, to make a change for the good.”
Now you’re hooked, not merely on the question of whether Tucker should be executed, but the social issues swirling around her. The writer has convinced you this is a value-added story. He’s convinced a higher proportion of potential readers to stay with the story, and, having done that, is free to start Tucker’s odyssey from the beginning, convinced we’ll follow him anywhere.
3. You can use a more limited form of foreshadowing to telegraph the fact that an interesting tangent awaits the reader later on.
Edmund Sanders was writing a Business-section profile of a banker whose life included some surprising personal misfortune. Read the top and watch for the underlined material in the seventh graf that made the promise:
Ten years ago, John F. ”Jack” Grundhofer was one of California’s most prominent bankers, but he packed his bags when it became clear he’d been passed over for the top job at Wells Fargo Bank. The Los Angeles native moved to frosty Minnesota in the middle of winter to take command of a smaller, ailing bank.
But ever since, the hyper-competitive Grundhofer has been fighting to get back home.
He made an unsuccessful bid for Los Angeles-based First Interstate Bancorp in 1995. Three years later he tried to buy San Francisco-based Wells Fargo but was rebuffed.
Now, undeterred, the 61-year-old chairman of Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp is gobbling up small California institutions in a bid to cobble together a third major franchise to take on the state’s leaders, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
In the last six months, Grundhofer has bought two San Diego banks-Bank of Commerce and Peninsula Bank-and Newport Beach-based Western Bancorp, which operates Santa Monica Bank and Southern California Bank. The purchases boosted U.S. Bancorp’s deposits in California to nearly $6 billion and catapulted it from the state’s 13th-biggest bank to No. 6.
”This is a bit like a homecoming for me,” Grundhofer said in a recent interview, during one of his increasingly frequent California trips to schmooze with potential customers, oversee branch integration and reestablish old business ties.
A 30-year banking veteran, Grundhofer is respected and feared as a persistent, scrappy businessman who has been toughened by personal tragedies, including his kidnapping and his daughter’s near-fatal shooting. He began his career as a repo man at Union Bank, but hopped on the management track after an angry car owner shot at him.
His California gambit has not gone undetected by the state’s top banks, especially not by his former colleagues at Wells Fargo.
At a recent Wells Fargo management meeting in Southern California, Grundhofer was declared one of the bank’s top enemies. Executives worry…
The choice Ed had to make was: how much foreshadowing that high in the story was appropriate? He could have merely used the line “who has been toughened by personal tragedies.” Or he could have added one or two more grafs at that point. I liked his compromise. It got my attention, without departing from the necessity of developing the theme of the story: Grundhofer’s financial importance. Later, when the story moved into a chronology of Grundhofer’s rise, Ed would expand on the personal bumps, keeping the promise that the foreshadowing graf made.
4. Sometimes you can foreshadow by using extra language for the sake of emphasis.
Remember, we’re on a date. We’re engaged in seduction. As long as you keep your date interested, you can do anything you want. Suppose the Italian restaurant we’re going to really is terrific. Regale her with a few extra menu details along the way.
When James Bates was profiling the new chief exec of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the Sunday Magazine, he wanted to drive home a great contrast: The new boss, a rich entertainment-industry honcho, was walking into an exceedingly unrewarding job, motivated mostly by a sappy, lifelong love of the Dodgers. The story was going to work only if you understood how beleagured the Dodgers were, and how the new prez lived and died with the ballclub’s fortunes. A classic show-don’t-tell mission. So James spent nine grafs hammering home the odds against Daly, asking in so many words why the hell anybody from the entertainment business would want the far less pleasant challenge of running an underperforming, overpaid baseball team:
New Dodger chief Robert Daly squints into the glare above Chavez Ravine, looking through the glass walls of his office, just a pop fly from the foul pole marking left field. “This is my field of dreams,” he says.
Some field of dreams. On this day, Dodger Stadium is a field of dirt. Lots of it, thanks to a $50-million make-over that must be finished before the Cincinnati Reds show up on April 14 for the home opener. No green anywhere, just rolled sod and dirt excavated from the hill where Walter O’Malley 40 years ago carved out what today is baseball’s fifth oldest stadium. Where 56,000 voices once cheered Sandy Koufax’s no-hitters, Fernando Valenzuela’s shutouts and Kirk Gibson’s miracle home run. Now there echoes the drone from two bulldozers and a tractor and an annoying high-pitched beep warning people to move. One bulldozer scrapes infield dirt from second base to third, moving so slowly that a one-armed catcher could throw it out.
The renovation at field level is much like the one taking place three sections up in the office Daly has occupied since late October. For nearly two decades, Daly was at the pinnacle of Hollywood power as head of the giant Warner Bros. studio. Now he’s abruptly thrown himself into repairing the city’s storied baseball franchise. How hard will that be? The Dodgers haven’t earned a World Series trophy since Ronald Reagan was president. Last year’s losses: $22 million. Despite pricey new seats behind home plate and a new row of luxury boxes, soaring player salaries mean that ending up in the black this year will be harder than winning all 162 games.
Daly also inherits a team that alienated fans the moment it passed from the familial stewardship of the O’Malleys two years ago into subsidiaryhood, becoming a tiny speck in Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire, aimed at enhancing his cable TV operations. Now Daly is chief executive officer of the team, and plenty of fans believe it’s not a moment too soon for a change. Last year, Murdoch’s News Corp. and its Fox unit outspent nearly every other team owner, yet the Dodgers still lost more games than they won, finishing an embarrassing 23 games out of first place. If that wasn’t enough, fans suffered through watching Mike Piazza–one of the most popular Dodgers in recent times until he was unceremoniously traded–in the playoffs wearing a New York Mets uniform.
Daly’s coming summer couldn’t be more different from the ones he spent on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where he and his inseparable co-chief Terry Semel reigned for nearly 20 years. Theirs was the world of “Batman,” “Lethal Weapon,” “The Matrix,” TV shows like “Friends” and “ER” and music from Madonna, Alanis Morissette and Metallica. Daly and Semel were on a first-name basis with Clint, Julia, Mel, two Toms, Jodie, Arnold, Steven, Sly, Barbra and any other star or director worthy of a private trailer on a movie set.
Stars loved doing movies for “Bob and Terry.” The two execs could be taken at their word and the talent could count on being pampered with things like free Range Rovers or being chauffeured in Warner’s Gulfstream IV jet. After the two shocked Hollywood by announcing that they were leaving, the stars crowded the courtyard at Mann’s Chinese so Daly and Semel could cement not only their handprints on Hollywood Boulevard but also their place in Hollywood history.
All the more puzzling why someone like Daly at age 63 has answered Murdoch’s siren call. He doesn’t need the job. The millions he earned over the years are measured in triple digits. The old Warner Gulfstream IV? He and Semel bought it. Daly could just as easily be raising horses, chickens and pigeons on the $6.4-million, 17-acre ranch he and his wife, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, bought last year in Malibu.
Yet here he is, spending up to $36 million of his own money to buy 10% of the team so he can become chairman of a business 1% the size of the one he ran before. He’s an autonomous managing partner, but every fan he encounters won’t hesitate to tell him what to do. Outside of the entertainment business, virtually no one knew or cared that Daly ran Warner Bros. Now, to the opinionated Dodger fan, he’s both the genius who traded for emerging superstar outfielder Shawn Green and the idiot who got rid of pitcher Ismael Valdes and second baseman Eric Young. Some of the 30 or so letters he gets a week even complain about things like the Dodger Dogs mustard.
“What do I worry about? I worry about letting people down,” Daly says. “I really feel an obligation here not to let people down.”
Only when the second segment of the story began were we allowed to see the reason for Daly’s career change:
It’s Oct. 3, 1951. at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, Daly, age 14, and his classmates are transfixed, hanging on every word from the radio their teacher has allowed in the classroom. The Dodgers are on the verge of the World Series. They’re leading the rival New York Giants 4-2 with two on and two out in the last of the ninth. The final Giant hitter, Bobby Thomson, is the last hurdle. “All the kids were listening,” Daly recalls. “We were all Dodger fans.” To understand Daly’s love for the team, you first must understand how utterly devastated he was to hear what happened next. “Thomson hit the home run and the room was silent.” The famous homer sent the Giants to the Series instead. “It was crushing.”
It’s Oct. 16, 1985. Daly is sitting in the Warner seats behind the first-base dugout watching the Dodgers in the playoffs against St. Louis. No sooner has he finished telling another Warner executive that he may attend the Series than Cardinal first baseman Jack Clark hits a home run and, in Warner Bros. lingo, that’s all, folks. Daly spends an hour sitting in a car in the stadium parking lot, as depressed as he’s ever felt.
Baseball fans come in many shapes. There are those who enjoy an occasional game, especially if the locals are having a good year. There are those so devoted that they can’t sleep at night without knowing how the boys did. And there are those who are obsessed with every detail about every player, every game, and whose own self-images are so tied up in the fortunes of the team that friends occasionally wonder about them. Brooklyn had a lot of that third type, Daly among them.
It was an intelligent trick. There had already been numerous published allusions to Daly’s love of the Dodgers, but how did you show it? Jim’s ability to characterize the depth of the contrast between crummy job and heartfelt motivation foreshadowed the emotional truth, and the emotional depth, of the story.
5. Foreshadowing an unconventional story structure
When Lee Hotz was writing a complex story on how the brain controls language, he essentially wove two stories together: neurobiology, and a single operation that humanized recent discoveries. Once the story developed, he planned to use alternating chapters. But to begin the story, he had to foreshadow both themes so you were ready for the journey.
Here are the first 13 grafs. Watch how the fifth and 13th grafs (underlined), in particular, inform you that you’re about to see microcosm (one man’s fate) and macrocosm (medicine) blended together:
In every human thought and reflection, there is a word.
For Paul Sailer, the essence of all his words is concealed in the cells along a pastel furrow of brain tissue behind his ear, just to the left of the surgeon’s probe.
On this day, Sailer, 32, lies on an operating table with his head clamped firmly in a surgical vise, in a subbasement of the UCLA Medical Center. His skull is open. His brain pulses as he breathes. The exposed tissue steams in the cool dry air.
A brain tumor is slowly crushing his left temporal lobe and with it, his capacity to make sense of words and sentences.
Only a few weeks ago, Sailer, a newly wed electrical engineer at Point Mugu Naval Station, was in training for a mountain bike marathon.
Now, to save his life, Sailer must risk the uniquely human ability to express his thoughts. The surgeon’s chance of preserving both life and words depends on a revolution in neurobiology that for the first time is revealing exactly where nouns, verbs, sentences and the concepts they articulate are rooted in the brain.
In this moment, everything that science has learned about the human brain and its most complex behavior is concentrated in a surgeon’s hands, a psychologist’s probing questions and the courage of a young man on an operating table.
On the surface, the tumor cells in Sailer’s brain look no different than normal cortical tissue. There is no language organ in the brain and no easily discernible tissue where words or grammar reside. There are only microscopic threads of cells and synapses.
For surgeons schooled in the anatomical shorthand of the body, with its emphasis on clearly defined organs, nerves and circulatory systems, this profound decentralization almost comes as a shock.
Language is nowhere and yet everywhere.
But a high-speed brain scanner at UCLA, used during pre-surgical planning to image mental activity, can see what the human eye cannot. It reveals the cells in Sailer’s brain that are responsible for language–”eloquent cells,” his surgeon calls them–as a constellation of pinpoints of light; the tumor as a shadow across a swathe of brain tissue.
In one crucial area, the shadow has embraced the light.
When this operation is over, some portion of those eloquent cells will be gone. But without the operation, the unchecked growth of the tumor could easily silence Sailer’s mind well before it proves physically fatal.
The decisions made during the next 10 hours by the surgeon, Dr. Gregory J. Rubino, are choices measured in millimeters. They may not only save Sailer’s life, but also salvage his link to the world around him, his ability to give form to his innermost thoughts and emotions. The operation may save what some believe is the foundation of the conscious mind itself–its ability, through language, to shape its own inner dialogue, to know itself.
That was followed by a typographical break, and then the first chapter on the science of language:
Bees dance. Whales sing.
Without a stumble, the average person can produce about 150 words a minute, each word…
At a loss for words, baboons employ a rich vocabulary of curtsy and bow. Even bacteria can signal their intentions with the crude semaphores of primordial chemistry.
Indeed, nature has given almost every creature a way to get its meaning across; yet only human beings are endowed with such a complex and elaborate means of making their desires known.
Lee’s foreshadowing underscored his appreciation that the hardest chore in this story was not figuring out what to tell his readers, but how.
RECOMMENDED READING: Thomas Friedman’s July 20 column in the New York Times. I offer this in sharp contrast to the sloppy way newspapers usually describe the nature of anti-globalization protests. The riots outside the Seattle World Trade Organization meeting in 1999 revealed a news media often confused by the complex mixture of causes that assembled. It violated a simple rule: When you cover a protest, you sure as hell better explain exactly what the protesters are mad at. Read Friedman’s column, which follows, for your own education on a key issue, and also as an example of explanatory technique:
Throughout history, successful social protest movements have had one thing in common–a clear, simple message and objective. Whether it was the women’s rights movement or the anti-Vietnam-War movement, the mere uttering of the name immediately conjured up who the protesters were and what their objective was.
The striking thing about the protesters at gatherings from the Seattle W.T.O. meeting in 1999 to this week’s Genoa G-8 summit is that they tend to be called just “the protesters” or “the anti-globalization protesters,” which in neither case conjures up much of anything. To be against globalization is to be against so many things–from cell phones to trade to Big Macs–that it connotes nothing. Which is why the anti-globalization protests have produced noise but nothing that has improved anyone’s life.
What is intriguing about the Genoa summit, though, is that many of the serious activist groups that have participated in past protests have come to recognize that breaking McDonald’s windows or just saying “no” does not a protest movement make.
They have come to recognize that if they have any hope of harvesting the attention they have drawn to the problems of globalization they have to decide exactly what they are protesting against, because the protesters actually fall into two broad categories: those who think the issue is whether we globalize and want to stop globalization in its tracks, and those who understand, as I would argue, that globalization is largely driven by technology–from the Internet to satellites to cell phones to PC’s–which is shrinking the world from a size medium to a size small, whether we like it or not, and therefore the issue is how we globalize.
Up to now, these two groups have been mixed together: Anarchists and leftover Marxists who are simply looking for ways to undermine capitalism in a new guise and protectionist unions exploiting well-meaning college students to stop free trade are thrown together in the streets with environmentalists who believe trade, growth and green can go together; anti-poverty groups that understand that globalization, properly managed, can be the poor’s best ladder out of misery; and serious social welfare groups that have useful ideas about debt relief and labor standards in a globalizing world.
Because the whether we globalize groups tend to be more noisy and violent, they have increasingly drowned out the how we globalize groups. In doing so they have created the misimpression that “the people” believe that globalization is all bad and can never work for the poor, when, in fact, it has both empowering and enriching features and disempowering and impoverishing features, and it all depends on how you manage it. If you think globalization is all good or all bad, you don’t get it.
Fortunately, many of the serious how we globalize groups and government leaders are no longer willing to cede the moral high ground to the most idiotic whether we globalize groups, and what you’ve seen around Genoa is, for the first time, a split between the two.
Some serious groups, such as Friends of the Earth, Christian Aid, Jubilee 2000 and Oxfam, have been distancing themselves from violent protests and insisting on codes of conduct. “The political space around big international meetings has been hijacked by those who want to commit violence,” Justin Forsyth, policy director of Oxfam, told The Financial Times. “It is counterproductive. They are taking the spotlight off those who want positive change.” Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain said people had been “far too apologetic” toward the violent protesters: “If the public knew their views, they’d disagree with them.” And President Bush rightly declared: “Those who protest free trade seek to deny [the poor] their best hope for escaping poverty.”
This split between the whether we globalize forces and the how we globalize forces is an important strategic moment that should be nurtured–not for its own sake but to actually make some progress. The serious protesters have made their point that it matters how we globalize, but they can make a difference only if they design solutions in partnership with big businesses and governments. The moment is ripe for a world leader who can bring them together.
COMING NEXT MONDAY: A series of extended “How-I-Wrote-The-Story” essays by reporters (along with the full story) that gives you an intimate look at specific writing and conceptualization techniques. First up: How a reporter’s thirst for detail brought meaning to her editor’s assignment to “define what we mean by ‘middle class'”