Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sideshadowing and the Battle Against Inevitability

For a very long time in the history of the novel, writers have tended to produce what theorists call "ideal texts," which means that the novels form sort of closed systems where all the events in the stories lead to a distinct end point (the climax) and all the various subplots and strands of the story are wrapped up and concluded by the last page of the book, often in a denouement of whatever length is necessary. The idea is to leave the reader with no unanswered questions or loose ends, with a feeling that everything is over and the reader's mind can rest. This "ideal text" is based on the false premise that life is a neat, closed system wherein every conflict has a resolution. Now, we all know this isn't the case outside of made-up stories, and over time there has been a growing movement to reject this "ideal text" and the imposed closure of this sort of narrative.

Today I'm going to talk about a narrative technique called "sideshadowing." This is similar to "foreshadowing" and "backshadowing." To quickly review, foreshadowing is the technique of putting clues into the narrative early that a particular event will happen later on, a sort of warning that "something's coming." Backshadowing is the technique of putting commentary into the narrative later on that refers to earlier events, a sort of "should've seen that coming." In general, foreshadowing is visible only to the reader, not the characters. Backshadowing is visible to both reader and character.

Sideshadowing, on the other hand, is the technique of pointing outside of the narrative, of deliberately suggesting to the reader that more things might be going on than what's expressed in the narrative, that there are in fact a multiplicity of narrative possibilities, and that the story in not a "closed system" and that everything can't be all wrapped up neatly by the ending, or even at all. I realize that this is a vague definition, and likely that's because sideshadowing isn't a single technique so much as it's a variety of techniques, and because writers are not thinking in terms of "sideshadowing." The term itself is pretty new, the invention of literary theorist Gary Saul Morson. Go look him up.

Sideshadowing suggests not what happened or what will happen, but what else might happen/have happened in a story. Sideshadowing techniques include:

Unanswered questions
Loose ends
Half-told stories
Historical backdrops vaguely referenced
Unexposed backstory

Sideshadowing is sort of an argument against inevitability, if you will. Where foreshadowing and linear "ideal" stories close off narratives step-by-step, sideshadowing opens up a narrative moment-by-moment, offering the reader the idea of more than a single possible outcome. Here are the examples of sideshadowed narratives that came to my mind right off:

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevski
The Lady and the Dog by Anton Chekhov (and lots of his other stories)
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Stern
As well as the works of Borges, Beckett, Rushdie, O'Connor, Oates and others.

I think that writers who have resisted the closed nature of "ideal stories" use a variety of techniques all in the pursuit of narratives that more closely reflect the open-ended nature of reality and the many possibilities that exist in each moment of our lives. I think this "now-ness" is what many writers are looking for when they use the present-tense (and that so many writers are using the present-tense because there's an unrecognized but growing sense that "ideal stories" are inadequate vessels for certain types of realist fiction). In other words: modernism has taken a deep hold on current fiction behind everyone's back. For me at least, there is an expansiveness, a feeling that these sorts of stories are not isolated things unto themselves, a hint that these narratives are connected to the larger world and I like that feeling.

This is something that I've been trying to do in my own work. In one of my novels, I refer obliquely to real-world events and mention larger historical movements in passing to give the impression that my characters are part of a complete, forward-moving world. I also leave the essential large-scale conflict unresolved, because it's a large-scale conflict that goes on even to this day. In another novel, I have my main characters' story intersect with the stories of supporting characters and you never learn how those other stories play out. Readers are left, hopefully, with the idea that there is a real world going on outside of my story, that things are in motion and that new stories can come winging into my narrative from any angle and change the course of lives. At least that's one of the intended effects.

Anyway, this is likely very obscure and idiosyncratic but it's what I think about lately when I think about writing: how to open the narrative up and imply not only a larger world than the fictional world of the narrative, but that the narrative is only one possible outcome of the premise, that other endings are possible and may have actually taken place. This technique is still a work in progress for me, and I claim the provisional status of my ideas as an excuse for all the vagueness in this post.


  1. Scott, thanks for this awesome exploration of side-shadowing. I think this way about my short stories and my novels, and I "accidentally" do a lot of these things, but this really helps me understand and be more intentional about it. Awesome.

  2. Great write-up, and interesting subject. I think there's a thin line between a weak or incomplete story and an well-plotted sideshadow. Those who can do this successfully are masters of the craft.

  3. Nevets and Rick: You're right. You have to be in control of the MS or you're just being sloppy. I cry foul to anyone who accidentally leaves plotholes and then calls it sideshadowing out of laziness!

    But: I also think that writers get to put things into their books that even they don't fully understand as long as it feels like it should go in the MS. Which is a vague enough statement, don't you think?

  4. I've never actually had a name for it, but I definitely sideshadow in my story.

    In fact, a lot of things that happen are due to activities and choices made that took place years before, or at the same time, but out of the knowledge of the main characters.

    Hopefully, the reader will get the feeling that things are moving along even as characters sit and wonder what is happening.


  5. Scott, yeah, I should clarify. When I say I "accidentally" do a lot of these things, it's not an "oops, forgot about that," but more the sort of, "I'm not sure why, I really feel like it needs to be done this way."

    This spelling out will help me understand more why I think that way sometimes, and might help me catch some times when it's really not serving a purpose after all.

  6. I've been attracted to these types of ideas ever since I started writing without ever really having a name for it. I think minimalist writing, which I love to read, also deals with the idea of sideshadowing. For me, I'm often inspired to go in this direction, but then I can't aways escape the conditioning that I have to write ideal stories. That tends to mess things up.

  7. Mmmm, I love this kind of stuff, but I know I'm a far way off from mastering it. I'm like Davin, kind of split in half, and I'm never sure which way to go. So far I haven't done much sideshadowing, but it's something I'd like to work on more now that I'm aware of it and have a name for it. Thanks! :)

  8. Really, really interesting concept. I think it is probably best left in the hands of an experienced fiction writer, however.

  9. I like what you said, Scott--

    "I also think that writers get to put things into their books that even they don't fully understand as long as it feels like it should go in the MS."

    Because that's SO true. Sometimes, that very thing happens.

    I can't help but think maybe the TV series LOST was a story that relied heavily on sideshadowing. That show definitely ended on an odd note, with questions unanswered and the audience wondering how the heck to make sense of it. Weeks later, I was still thinking about the ending of the show. It left a lasting impact, for sure. Sideshadowing, if done well, should probably do that--an interesting concept to think about. Chances are, you'll still leave a lot of people angry though. ;-)

  10. Ashley: I don't mind readers being annoyed that everything isn't wrapped up pretty with a nice bow for them. Though my own novels, I will admit, have pretty solid endings. At least those novels I've written so far. We'll see about the next one. I am sorely tempted by the siren song of indeterminacy. That might be as close as I can come to a happy ending.

  11. You know, thinking about it, did I do this in CINDERS, Scott?


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