Tic, Tic, Tic

I just finished a great huge doorstop of a book–a thriller, entertaining and complex (though, for my money, about 300 pages longer than it ought to have been for any reason at all) — by a bestselling writer.  I had (mostly) a good time reading it, except for the foreshadowing.  Every chapter seems to end with a “It would be the last malted she ever drank,” or “three hours later everyone in the hospital would be dead” sort of sentence.  I think it’s intended to heighten the urgency and anxiety surrounding the events of the book, but you do it too often and it does just the opposite.  It’s a tic, and in a 1300-page book with as many chapters and sub-chapters as this one, it gets old.

Every writer develops habits, phrases, patterns.  Many of them are harmless.  Many of them won’t be observed by the reader.  But all of us do it.  And sometimes we pick up someone else’s tic and make it our own.  For example, I read the entire of Jane Aiken Hodge’s oeuvre when I was a teenager.  Hodge was a terrific writer of historical romance, meticulously researched and intelligent, with female characters who had agency and human emotions.  Win!  Hodge also has a tic that worked its way into my own writing.  Take a sentence like “It was foolish to think of what had gone before,” and she’d omit “It was.”  The final sentence would be “Foolish to think of what had gone before.”  Written from her character’s POV, lopping off “it was” gives the sentence immediacy and emotional punch.

When I was going through the galleys for my new book I found a number of sentences I’d built exactly that way; some of them I took out, some of them I kept. Because foreshadowing, and cliffhangers, and lopping off a word or two to heighten tension, are all very useful tools in a writers’ box o’ tricks.  Like any tool, you use it when appropriate, and no more.  Even if you’re Stephen King.




About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Tic, Tic, Tic — 5 Comments

  1. The question is, is that a bug or a feature? In other words, do people LIKE the tic, or are they repulsed? Somewhere else on the Interwebs Greg Feeley is complaining of the complex sentence structure that Henry James favors. This is a salient feature of James’s style, but sometimes he goes overboard, no denying it.

  2. Flash forwards repulse me. The only ones where I’ve seen it work is in the first-person narratives where it is very clear that it’s not just third-person with the pronouns changed, but the narrator consciously and wittingly telling the tale, often to a designated audience.

    Even there, the most effective use is for the narrator to comment about something someone told him about the scene, afterwards. For instance, he has to stand up and make a speech. Someone else told him it was indeed stirring and eloquent afterward, despite being undermined immediately by what his superior said.

  3. It’s always easier to see faults/features in someone else’s writing than one’s own.

    Whether or not the “tics” were deliberate, they annoyed you out of the story. I myself loathe “little did she know…” tics.

  4. I tend not to like narrative foreshadowings like this, as it spoils the tension line. “Oh, torture scene coming, right ho.” Seeing these tends to make me want to skim.

    But reactions to this sort of thing are so individual. I’ve seen readers mention how much they like these little cliff-hanger log lines.

    • Dan Brown does this a lot, and God knows it hasn’t hurt his sales.

      What is interesting to me is when someone else’s tic reminds me to check for my own. And I find ’em.