Let’s talk about the elements of style. You know, that boring section you learn in eighth grade about simile and metaphor and symbol and imagery and foreshadowing? Yawn. I’ve subbed in that unit, and it’s amazing how boring the education people can make something so fascinating.
If I were to teach the elements of style, I wouldn’t do it all at once, like, “We hate this, so let’s get it out of the way as fast as possible.” I’d read books in class that use a lot of the elements of style and use the books to illustrate the elements.
I taught a unit on S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders one year (again, to eighth graders), and I thought, heck, we could cover all of the elements of style right here. S.E. Hinton was sixteen years old, and you’d swear she had her eighth-grade elements of style list next to her and was crossing them off: “Imagery, check. Symbol, check. Foreshadowing, check…” I’m impressed as heck that she wrote a great, engaging story and used the elements of style. More than I can do as a writer. So I’m not being snarky.
So this week, let’s talk about foreshadowing. Remember the scene when Pony Boy is smoking a cigarette and he looks at the burning tip and imagines what it would be like inside that ember? When I taught the unit, I stopped the kids and asked, “Why would the author waste her time with that?” They hadn’t thought about it. Later, when Pony Boy was in the fire at the church, I said, “Remember when Pony Boy imagined being inside the burning ember? That was foreshadowing.” They thought that was so cool. They didn’t get it initially, because they were eighth graders and hadn’t been trained to look for it, but I’ll bet you they notice it next time.
Here’s another good example from a book called The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa. A character is hoping to get back home before dark, when the vampires come out to play. As she looks anxiously at the sky, “the shadows lengthened like grasping fingers, sliding over the ground.” Nope, that girl ain’t getting home by dark.
So why use foreshadowing? Tension! Fear! Anxiety! Nervousness! Dread! Hope! All of these emotions engage the reader in the book, make them feel something about the characters. They get invested in what happens to the character and they can’t put the book down.
And that’s the bingo! moment. Your job as writer is to make it physically impossible for readers to put your book down, even to sleep, because once they do, another book sitting on the table might start calling to the reader. Once that book gets picked up, you’re toast.
The elements of style are taught because they’re important. They really work. Do like I imagined Hinton doing, and keep a list of the elements of style by your computer. When you think you’re done writing, look over the list and try to identify where you used the elements in your book. If you can’t, my suggestion is, get back to work.