While writing their novels, authors have long aimed to create the perfect story – a complete, closed system with all the subplots leading to a definite climax, all threads tied up in the end, all the events in the story leading to a preordained ending. This idea is based on the belief that every conflict has a resolution. That the world of a novel should close with the turning of the last page. But real life is rarely ever like that.
In reality, our lives open up into uncertain futures. Events don’t necessarily fit into a pattern and may be just completely meaningless. I might decide to buy bread and feed the homeless man who sits by the street corner but that doesn’t necessarily imply that in the future that man will save me from being hit by an over-speeding car by pushing his wheelchair in my way. In a novel though, an author might insert this act of charity with a predetermined idea of later on having the homeless man play a critical role.
Real life though is never that certain. While the past may have a bearing on the future there is always more than one direction that life could take. There is a fluidity to life. If you were watching the unravelling of someone’s days in real-time and paused the video at any random point, there is no saying what the next scene will entail. However, in narrative art, including literature, almost everyone knows what they are reading is a story because the artificiality leaks through. All events, all scenes, all dialogues lead into the main plot line since a book is nothing but a man-made construct. More importantly, they all lead to an ending that the writer already has in mind. No matter how hard the writer tries to make the story “real”, the need to imbibe a structure to the work makes it impossible to make it exactly like real life.
A novel demands that in the end all loose threads of the story be tied together. Real life does not have the benefit of such literary closure. There is no specific plot to any person’s life. Thus is born a dilemma for writers who want their literary work to imitate life – of keeping things real and giving their readers a closure at the same time.
There is however a way, of imitating life in literature, a technique known as sideshadowing. Defined by American literary theorist, Gary Saul Morson, sideshadowing is used to suggest what else might have happened in the story. When thinking of narrative devices, foreshadowing (we spoke of it as a literary device here) and backshadowing come to mind. In foreshadowing, which is visible to the readers and not the characters, clues are dropped along the text hinting at an event that will come up later on. In backshadowing, a technique visible to both the reader and the characters, a commentary is put in after the events have already occurred and provide a context to what really happened. Sideshadowing is distinct from both these writing techniques – it points to things outside the narrative.
This means the reader must stop looking at the narrative and its timeline linearly and instead consider the set of alternate possibilities. Morgan, in his book, Narrative and Freedom – The Shadows of Time, argues that this view of time and narrative encourages intellectual pluralism, helps to liberate us from the false certainties of dogmatism, creates a healthy scepticism of present orthodoxies, and makes us aware that there are moral choices available to us.
Morson’s argument is that in life nothing is certain and time is “open”. Literary readers, on the other hand, are used to a determined end – some eventuality that the story leads to and everything not essential to it is stripped away by the writer. Sideshadowing stands in opposition to that method. It intends to deliberately suggest that more things might be going on in the universe of the story that is not contained within the narrative.
So how exactly do you achieve the effect of sideshadowing?
Including scenes that have no relevance to the plot is a way to induce a sense of structurelessness. It invites the audience to interpret and question the events that actually do come to pass. This opens up the narrative. It implies not only that there is a larger world outside the fictional narrative but also that the narrative is just one possible outcome of the plot line and that other endings are entirely possible too. An example of this is an open-ended story. A relative closure is given. Many books, however, come with a predetermined end, an end that is already present in the beginning. The characters have no free will as such. They make choices based on the eventuality they have to reach.
Sideshadowing, on the other hand, allows all the loose ends to remain, well, loose. It is a difficult concept to use and master. Its function is essentially to weaken the definitive nature of a story. It is a technique that is born more from an attitude of open writing rather than from following a blueprint of crafting the narrative structure by outlining the story. It doesn’t fit scenes together scientifically. If anything, it defies such a convention. There is no fixed formula, no careful selection of words to maximise the impact of the scene. In the case of sideshadowing, language works to surprise other characters and even the author him/herself. It is what makes the story an open one, pushing the author in the background and allowing possibilities to continue existing.
Are you a writer? What literary techniques do you use to maintain suspense and heighten curiosity? Have you tried sideshadowing in your story?