I have a soft spot for hypnotists, as anyone who’s read My Memories of a Future Life will readily believe. Required viewing in our house is the illusionist Derren Brown – and part of the fun is how he puts a show together as a story.
In the first show of his latest series, The Experiments, he tested whether a nice ordinary bloke could be conditioned to assassinate a celebrity – and then, like the man convicted of shooting Robert Kennedy, have no memory of doing the deed*.
It’s a lot to believe, for both volunteer and viewer. There were the obligatory demonstrations. We saw the lucky chap develop super-marksmanship under hypnosis. He was put in a trance and did things he couldn’t remember.
But he could have been faking, of course. So before any of these demonstrations were done, the audience had to be primed to believe they could be true.
With some nifty foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing, sometimes known as prefigurement, is a way of suggesting developments that may happen later in a story so that the reader is more ready to accept them.
1 Foreshadowing amnesia
Derren mentioned moments of amnesia we all naturally have – driving a familiar route and not remembering the journey, or if you locked the front door. Hey presto, amnesia is something that could happen to us all.
This is what a writer might do if a story pivoted on an event the reader might find hard to believe if confronted with it cold.
Imagine a story that revolves around mistaken identity. Before you see the actual mistake, the ground is prepared obliquely. So a man meeting his wife off the train might hug the wrong woman, fooled by her coat. Or two characters might talk about a situation where a friend got in the wrong car. You think the scene’s about something else – perhaps their friendship – but it plants the seed that mistaken identity could happen to anyone. So when later it does, it’s easier to swallow.
2 Foreshadowing the killer trance
The assassin in Derren’s experiment was activated when he saw polka dots. This was demonstrated in action a few times. But before all that, we were primed too.
While Derren was describing what witnesses saw when Kennedy was shot, he mentioned a woman in a polka-dot dress. It seemed like one of those details to make the story more vivid, as insignificant as what time it was or whether canapes were served. Until he introduced his visual trigger later in the show – polka dots. On a handkerchief. As a surprise picture on the inside of a restaurant menu.
Now we remembered they were associated with something sinister. And in the climax, they appeared on a dress…
And the sore thumb?
In Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven, a blacksmith remarks that if you whack your thumb in cold weather it hurts a lot more. Not long afterwards, on an icy cold day, Little Bill gets in a fight with English Bob. But this is more than Little Bill playing football with English Bob, we’re primed to feel the pain of the blows. Unforgiven is a world where everything is a struggle, where people are fragile. And a sore thumb tells us a kicking is really nasty.
*Derren Brown’s show was testing one theory of the assassination. The true circumstances are of course more complex than summarised by him or here in this post. This isn’t a post about that, it’s about storytelling. To check out more thorough examinations of the assassination, see this piece.
Skilled storytellers don’t leave your reaction to chance. More often than you think, they’re planting clues to finely control the way you feel.
As always, give me examples you’ve noticed! Or used in your own fiction
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