Using Foreshadowing, Flashback, Dreams and Other Literary Techniques in Detective Novels

It has long bothered me that in literary criticism and in many readers’ minds, there is still a sharp difference between , thought of as serious, highly-crafted novels with meaning as seen in its theme, and what has been called popular literature. Snooty readers look down their noses, for example, at detective novels and say that kind of writing is second-rate along with other types of genre novels like romance, science fiction, horror, fantasy, police procedural, and so on.

Detective novels can be serious, contain meaning, that is, have a theme or central idea, and be highly crafted. I mean by “highly crafted” that the writer puts together his or her novel carefully and with attention to good writing, and often uses literary devices in building his or her story. A device is something that is used in order to achieve a particular effect. Examples are similes or metaphors. It is worth trying a few of these devices as you write and see if they make a difference in telling your story, if they enhance it. If so, your novel is worthy to be placed in the mainstream category.

I’ll start with a little background about the basic structure of a story or novel, touching on Aristotle’s design to pin down the basic structure that we all start with when we write our novels. We’ll go from there to the classic detective novel in which writers did not hesitate to use literary techniques, and finally talk about a few of those techniques that we can put into or insert into our novels which deal with manipulation of time: foreshadowing, flashback, subplot, meaningful dialogue about the future, description of an atmosphere that predicts what may happen, and dreams. First, the structure we start with for our novel.

Do you like to arrange the events in your novel that make up your plot in chronological order, making those events you’ve ground out so painfully from your fevered brain march one after one another obediently until the end, never deviating from the chronological pattern you’ve forced upon your book? After all, this has been the time-honored method of telling a story ever since a group of people eager to be struck by wonder sat on the ground listening to a roving storyteller relate the new story he’d heard somewhere (or made up) about King Arthur (Welch or Celtic) or Achilles (Greek) or Gilgamesh (Mesopotamian). These storytellers knew instinctively how to tell a story in the most effective way, to keep the listeners’ attention and hopefully get paid.

But to see literary theory about the nature of a plot, we need to look at what Aristotle said in his Poetics c. 355-335 B.C. This was the first objective analysis of a literary work.

Aristotle talked about the events of a story, which as I’ve said, are selected and arranged by an author to form a plot. Aristotle used the word mythos for our word plot. We would all assume that this is the word for myth, with which we are familiar. But as Northrop Frye and others point out, Aristotle said that broadly, mythos implies narrative movement, which means a form that tells a story. In order to be read sequentially, there must be movement within the story. Aristotle associates this mythos, which we are thinking of as plot or movement, with drama, which in turn he defines as a mimesis or imitation of a human action. We thus consider the plot, Northrup Frye says, as the “central form, or metaphorically the soul, of the drama.” The word “form” suggests structure, that is, how you build those events from beginning to end. The term is architectural: to build or put together.

To go a little further, Aristotle says that a plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. (This three part structure has been tinkered with for centuries. I want to mention that even though this structure appeals to all people everywhere, the popular way to meddle with it is to leave out the beginning end at which film goers or readers like me gnash teeth.) This Aristotelian structure makes the plot different from the type of narrative exemplified by a diary or primitive romances of long ago, which start and stop arbitrarily and have unconnected sequence.

The beginning of the plot must suggest an end and the end must return to the beginning. (In my latest novel, Cross of Gold Road,  we start with Tim Lomax at the beginning and see that he has suffered a grievous mental injury, and at the end we discover  how he turns out, thus turning the reader’s mind back to what he was like at the beginning. The story comes full circle thus satisfying the reader.

Another element Aristotle mentions which is typical particularly in the detective story is anagnorises. The word means “discovery” or “recognition” or “surprise” that the audience feels when the truth comes out.

Aristotle says plot is not simply an arrangement of events moving in a straight line; it is “teleological, that is, it has a purpose in moving as it does, and its purpose is to illuminate the beginning by the end, and vice versa.” To make it more complex, plot does not simply move with time but “spreads out in metaphorical space.” However, since the beginning and end are connected in some way, the movement suggests there must be a structure of some kind. Or simply, you build a structure when you construct your plot. The writer worries about how the incidents are put together, placed in the story, and how they are related.

A last way to look at plot and its structure, is that Aristotle suggests that the drama (or the story or novel) has importance because it has meaning. Meaning is the idea that is expressed in a piece of writing.

With this plotting structure in mind, let’s take a long jump to the detective novel, which is even more popular today than it was when Edgar Allan Poe started it in the nineteenth century with his story of ratiocination called Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. Of course in England, from which he drew inspiration, the detective story had an earlier start. The early detective novelists in both countries used Aristotle’s primary structure of plot when they wrote. If you dissect the plots in many of the famous detective writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century novels, you can find these basic parts. Of course there are extra items added, but it all breaks down into a beginning, middle, and an end, the beginning associated with the end and vice versa, and all the rest. They may differ in their protagonists (Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Poe’s Dupin, but they are alike in one important way: These detective stories were written in a literary style in both countries. This means that writers thought that just as in other types of fiction, you must be acquainted with literary techniques to produce a well written book to write as beautifully as possible. This is true even if you were writing about the murders in an English country house on a certain rainy weekend. Thus you find the early work of Ellery Queen and Robert Parker using metaphor, simile, allusion, figurative language and other techniques in their work. (Parker and Queen were much more prone to do this in their early novels and that’s why those early books are quite entertaining to read and worthy of rereading. )

In the classic popular or detective novel, the detective is often an amateur and often has a companion or even a servant to help him. Poe’s protagonist, Dupin, liked to solve crimes the police couldn’t and cooperated with the police sometimes. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Watson were influenced by Poe’s work. Another famous pair was Lord Peter Wimsey and his servant Bunter invented by Dorothy Sayers. All these detective stories were written in a literary way. They featured the rational thought of the protagonists in figuring out the mystery. Another must-have was fair play. All the clues were presented enabling the reader to figure out who the murderer was.

But this was due to change. The novels of Ellery Queen are an example of the changes the early classic mystery novels went through as the world changed. According to Joseph Goodrich, a Queen critic: “. . . the novels in the late twenties and early thirties were classic, fair play works. Later work encompassed stylistic experimentation, daring intellectual social and philosophical content. Post-World War II novels dealt with mass murder, aberrant psychology, McCarthyism, passion of Christ, Death of God, Auschwitz and insanity of modern life, all these figuring as background and subject. Usefulness of reason, the cornerstone virtue of the classic mystery, was questioned. Ellery Queen embodied rationality but the world had changed. Dannay and Lee reflected on that chaos.”

When in the US, hard-boiled fiction arose, which often had nothing to do with the beauty of one’s writing but which dealt with shock value, sensationalistic content, and crudity of expression to match what happened in the novels, lots of sex and violence, an immoral or amoral private detective as the protagonist, a lot changed. In fact many writers started writing police procedurals.

Let’s talk about several literary devices tied in with the manipulation of time, ways to wrest the novel from the often boring chronological plot structure you’ve given it. Let’s take it for granted that we start out with the Aristotelian structure of the novel we’ve talked about. We can feel free to try some literary devices that will make our novels more skillfully written, transmit our meaning more effectively, and fascinate the reader with our story.

Foreshadowing shows or suggests something that will happen or exist at a future time. Here you are stopping in your chronological pattern to prepare the reader for something important that is coming. You are, in effect, titillating the reader producing feelings of interest, pleasure, or suspense. She thinks, “I can’t wait to get there,” or How did that happen?” Using an earlier event that goes back before main story started, you can prepare for an important later event. In a historical novel I’m reading, the author stopped the narration to say no one realized seeing the beautiful laughing princess and her adoring subjects that in a few years they would be pelting her boat with garbage as it was rowed down the Thames. It thus makes the final event that much stronger now that the reader has been prepared. You can also use a minor episode to foreshadow a main development in the plot. Episode is an incidental event or happening within the story which nevertheless foreshadows something to come. Thus in a detective novel, a common incident is a person acting “wrong” in a group of people who are all acting “right.” The plot goes on until the writer reaches the point that the first person acting wrong was actually the killer and a bunch of people were there and never suspected anything. The alert reader knows something is wrong when she reads this little part and suspects that later this person will be met again.

Sometimes a subplot may emulate the major plot that will come later. While a subplot features secondary characters who act separately from the central plot, there may be a parallel between the two types of plots. The subplot may prefigure the problems inherent in the main plot. At some point, the subplot and major plot join.

Dialogue is very handy to suggest something that might happen in the future. For example, a character might have extra knowledge that he can impart to the detective, which might suggest something is going to happen based on the knowledge the character has.

Description of the atmosphere of the story, defined as the mood and the setting of the story may predict the type of action that will happen later. The three witches in Macbeth provide a frightening atmosphere that foreshadows the later violence.

Dreams work this way by foreshadowing what is going to happen later in the story. Once again the chronological action is stopped to make way for a meaningful dream, which is described outside of your original time. You are suspending that time, describing the dream, and then the story is taken up again after the dream is concluded and chronological time resumes. A detective novel might well start with a character having a terrible dream which prophesies an action which will occur in the future or gives only a hint of what has happened to the character which may bear on his ultimate fate.

So far, we’ve seen devices that predict something that is going to happen. Now for one that moves from the chronological time of your novel to the past. Flashback calls for the suspension of your chronological time temporarily to go into past events which throw light on the plot. It can be recollections by a character in a reverie, a daydream, a reversion to a previous event that throws light on the problem of the novel. The character is lost in thought, propelled there by an incident, a significant object or event .

If any of these literary devices sound like fun and you think they might enhance your novel, why not try them? Remember, though, if you overdo them, use too many, their individual effectiveness suffers.



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