Thursday, January 6, 2011

Busted!--Roland Merullo caught foreshadowing with metaphor

Novelist and memoirist Roland Merullo confesses, in print and online interviews, to being a “pantser.”

“I write by the seat of my pants, almost always without an outline,” he says. “I just start, and that seems like opening the floodgates, or drilling a well. All kinds of stuff comes out, and usually very quickly.”

What’s that I hear? Ah yes, the collective sigh of all you pantsers out there, underscored by the shredding of those confounded outlines that were the result of last year’s resolutions.

But Merullo does not surrender the structure of his books to whimsy. He builds from what he calls “a very clear sense of an opening moment.” And in more than one case, he has had the smarts to include an early metaphor that suggests the scope of the book’s conflicts. Meaning that he either a) wrote the metaphor, listened carefully for what his subconscious was saying, then wrote the book without ever deviating from that vision, or—and much more likely for a pantser—b) he went back and wrote the metaphor once the book was finished.

From A Little Love Story (2005):

In the inciting incident, a man re-emerges in public after a year of mourning only to have a woman back her car into his classic and lovingly-kept 1949 Dodge truck.
“Every time I looked at the truck from a certain angle I could see the broken taillights and dented fender and I wondered how hard it would be to get replacement parts and I thought about the black-haired woman coughing in the rain.”
The black haired woman will be his love interest, and her cough is from cystic fibrosis. In order for them to have a future, she might require “replacement parts” that include a new pair of lungs. A great set-up for an imperfect, modern-day love story.

From Breakfast with Buddha (2007):

Merullo sets up the effect that an unwelcome cross-country passenger, some sort of "spiritual guru," will have on the protagonist—who has just described his “superbly satisfying life”:
“And yet, from time to time a gust of uneasiness would blow through the back rooms of my mind, as if a window had been left open there and a storm had come through and my neatly stacked pages of notes on being human had blown off the desk.”

If you have an early sentence that metaphorically foreshadows the scope of your story, I’d love to hear it, because I'm a fan of this technique. Not sure? Re-read your early chapters—the subconscious is powerful. You might be surprised to find what’s already there!

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Great post! Gives me a lot to think about. I'll go back and look at my novels and try to compare--and I'll certainly keep the metaphor in mind as I write. Beautifully done. Had not read Roland before. Think I will now, for sure!Sylvia Dickey Smith

    A War of Her Own

  2. Intriguing. I need to go metaphor hunting.

  3. This is an interesting post, Kathryn. I haven't used this technique, but I like the idea.

  4. Sylvia and Linda: Once you start hunting, you'll see these in many novels you read!

    Pat: I used it myself in the novel I'm shopping around: "Now that the company warm-up is over I return to the stage, where all things are possible." I hadn't intended it to foreshadow the entire plot, but I added it after I wrote the book, when I was well steeped in its themes--and this is what sprang forth for an opening line.

  5. I use a very loose outline, which exists mainly in my head. It's always subject to revision. Wish I could be more organized, but that's not me. Also, I'm afraid if I did outlines, it would take some of the joy out of my writing.

    Morgan Mandel

  6. I would flounder without a mind map. I can't even take a trip without a mind map! I love the idea of going back through writing and finding that power sentence tucked away in the writing. Great idea!

  7. Thanks for pointing this technique out, Kathryn. I don't think I had been consciously aware of the use of metaphors in this way, but I see it now, and recognize how it has been used in books that I love to read and reread. Not sure if it is in my books or not. Like, Linda, I need to go metaphor hunting. LOL

  8. Morgan: I too use only a loose outline. A list of emotional turning points I envision, to be precise. For that reason I'm much more likely to use a sentence like this, that suggests the story arc, in a later draft.

  9. Dani and Maryann: Yes, these sentences, once found, feel like gifts from the subconscious.

  10. Those were beautifully done. I see them in books, but have not focused on my own book.


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