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I have a main character that cannot die. I'm trying to convey this information to the reader, but since my character isn't aware of this, I've decided to leave hints throughout the adventure. This is mainly done through rumours that are dismissed by the characters as crazy talk from the villagers.

I'm afraid that once I put this mechanic into use, my readers will accuse me of jumping the shark or pulling a deus ex machina because they missed the setup and are now angry with the payoff. What I've already thought of is to make the first occurrence of this phenomenon happen in an irrelevant, random encounter and not somewhere that a different outcome (Character dying) would have a major impact on the story. Furthermore this will not help the character in any significant way (From a logical perspective it makes no difference if the character was to die permanently and someone else continued his work or if it remains the same character). I see it more as a burden than anything else, since it will impact the character in a harmful way.

I don't have any better ideas than reworking the whole story to make him know or at least suspect that something like this is in effect. The story takes place in a fantasy world but resurrection isn't all that common and most inhabitants of the land don't really believe it to be possible.

I suppose the question would be: How to lay out the setup so readers won't disregard it and then feel the payoff came out of nowhere and was not implied earlier?

  • 6
    I wouldn't sweat this too much. JKRowling mentioned the locket which turned out to be one of Voldy's horcruxes as a throwaway item in a list once in the beginning of book 5, and I don't remember anyone yelling later that she didn't hang a sufficiently large lampshade on it. – Lauren Ipsum Dec 24 '18 at 16:54
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    The best answer I can give is to use beta readers. Ones that do not already know about your character's immortality. Either write it the way you prefer and change it if necessary. Or write it both ways and give different versions to different readers. It's nice for readers who can figure something big like that out from subtle cues. You just want to be sure it's not too subtle. This is way bigger than figuring out which object might be important to a plot point. – Cyn Dec 24 '18 at 17:00
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    @LaurenIpsum I yell that all the time; I love the series but I felt exactly the problem Valrog is describing: the Horcruxes (among others) feel too “sudden”, as if Rowling conceived of the Horcruxes later on in the series and then decided she would use some already destroyed artefacts as well (presumably so the story doesn’t get too repetitive). – 11684 Dec 24 '18 at 21:50
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    Although not exactly what you're describing, the film Unbreakable might give you some ideas. – Sigma Ori Dec 24 '18 at 23:39
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    Writing the setup too obvious would be just as problematic a pitfall. So don't overdo it. – Mast Dec 26 '18 at 12:18
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The components of a really effective payoff, in my mind, are these:

  • The reader knows something is coming
  • But: they don't know what is coming. They have open questions; they have doubts. They're in a state of tension; anticipation.
  • The payoff resolves the tension, in a way that makes sense to the reader -- but, ideally, not something they were able to guess themselves.

It sounds to me like the reason you're unsatisfied with your buildup is because, while it does build support for the twist (helps it make sense), it doesn't do anything to build tension or anticipation. "People gossiping" is a hint, but it doesn't create a narrative arc.

So the question is: how can you get your readers to not merely accept your resurrection twist, but look forward to it?

You need to figure out what kind of anticipation you can build. Here's a few suggestions -- they're tailored to your specific case, but they're just examples; you and any other writer should be able to come up with your own ideas.

Fake Out. The hero thinks something else is going on; the reveal makes everything click into place. E.g., the hero is trying to figure out who saved his life when he blacked out during a shipwreck. Answer: nobody did; he died and came back.

Reflection. Establish the groundwork for somebody else, first. Maybe your hero has a bitter rival who just won't stay dead. That's a lot easier to build up with lots of tension -- and once you have, then going "hey btw you're one of these too" is muuuch less of a stretch.

Heroic Buildup. The hero knows something is special about them, but they don't know what. Prophecies and oracles are staples for this -- they're practically information-free buildup; "something here is important, by divine/authorial decree".
Imagine the despair of "oh no I'm dying and I never even found my power" and then being "ohhhhhh now I get it."

Thematic Buildup. Some stories work less on straight cause and effect, and aim for developments that resonate more with emotion than strict logic. If you build a strong thematic element into your story -- an idea, an image, a rule, that become the rules of your story -- then you can do almost anything. Because that's how the story goes.
If you think this doesn't pack enough punch to literally bring somebody back from the dead -- consider Aslan, Gandalf, and even Buffy.

You can find your own arc and buildup -- something that interests you, and fits in well with your story. The trick is simply to look beyond "have I justified this enough," on to "how do I build a story arc with this as its climax."

All the best!

  • Good perspectives I haven't considered before. Completely forgot about Gandalf, too. – Valrog Dec 29 '18 at 11:47
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    Glad you liked, @Valrog ! If you like the Gandalf example, it's worth thinking through why that one works. I'd say because Gandalf is built up as both so powerful, and so otherworldly and inscrutable. So for him, resurrection is not anticipated -- but, once it happens, it fits the character. Your character will not be newr-omnipotent, nor as cryptic as Gandalf -- you'd need a tailor-made thematic arc for him. e.g. "Can't leave his troubles behind (not even by dying)", "Always lucks out at the last moment (lucks out even when literally dying)", etc. – Standback Dec 29 '18 at 16:47
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    Very good point and definitely something I have to keep in mind. In my character's case he's being kept alive until he fulfils a bargain with a deity. And that's something I need to build up more so when he returns my readers will go "Ah, of course" and understand that the criteria was not yet met. – Valrog Dec 29 '18 at 19:51
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    Ooooh. That's a pretty awesome hook. And, yeah, that gives you a known element to build up, that can totally justify the twist when it comes. All the best :-) – Standback Dec 29 '18 at 20:09
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SHOW, DON'T TELL

Avoid "prophesies" or "maid and butler dialog" about those almost-forgotten immortals that would telegraph what is coming. This is "telling, not showing". It should be a surprise to both the characters and the reader if it is meant to have any narrative impact.

The first time he is shown being immortal should feel like both an unexpected plot twist for the reader and a polarizing event for some of the other characters. Some will be shocked, some will suspect he is unusual, and some will dismiss it altogether.

The early incident can be left ambiguous, but now the characters have a reason to discuss immortals. Various characters will personify the various "opinions". Early believers will be seen as religious kooks while skeptics are presented as rational. At this point it is less about whether he is actually immortal because the reader hears all the worldbuilding lore and differing opinions: immortals don't exist, immortals maybe existed once but certainly not now, even if there are immortals they wouldn't look like that guy, that guy is a charlatan and this whole immortal thing is some kind of hoax, and behold the new immortal.

There is more than one "truth". With a range of reactions the reader learns about the range of the world's beliefs (richer worldbuilding) and the characters begin to differentiate themselves by how they react to the unexpected. Some are flexible and open-minded, some want to believe without proof, and some are suspicious or dismissive. Later when evidence of immortality happens again, these same characters will be given a second chance to assess the information. Some will change and some will be dogmatic. This tells us about what kind of people they are, while simultaneously representing the "rational" and "irrational" possibilities.

An author should not tell the reader what is "true" ahead of the story. Instead, show the events and allow the characters to react according to their own "truths". Giving an MC magic awesome superpowers is gee-whiz cool, but having a group of witnesses and ultimately an entire society become divided over the potential/threat/divinity of an "other" drives conflict, character, and storytelling.

Too much foreshadowing sucks life out of the story

Here's a quick example using the basic plot "Man in a Hole" (literally):

TELL (too much foreshadowing)

There once was a legend of a hole in the ground. Many people foretold the hole's curse, and said "Someday, someone will fall in that hole!"

Joe is getting married today. Joe falls in the hole.

There is no conflict or surprise – someone was going to fall in the hole eventually. We assumed it would be the main character. This story is about a hole that fulfills its destiny. Joe is just the lucky guy that finally falls in.

SHOW (without any foreshadowing)

If Joe is late for his own wedding Susan is going to kill him. Joe takes a shortcut and falls in a hole! He calls for help but no one hears and Joe eventually crawls out. Late for his wedding and covered in dirt, he finds Susan in the arms of his best man! Joe explains that he fell in a hole, but Susan doesn't believe him. "Oh, Joe! There's no such thing as holes!"

This story appears to be about Joe's mishaps, not a magic hole. There is character conflict that needs to be resolved. The hole is not more important than Joe or Susan or the wedding. We have a good idea where this story is going, but also some people don't believe in holes – wait, what?

Joe describes the hole. His inlaws think he's crazy. Susan is humiliated but he is sticking to this ridiculous story. Grandma mentions there's a witch at the edge of town who knows about holes, as she gulps down the wine. They'd paid the catering in advance, wedding or not.

Joe finds the witch at the edge of town and for $25 she recalls an old fable of the hole – which she dismisses as just a superstition. "Anyway, it's not the hole that you have to worry about, it's the curse!"

If you give clues in advance, there is nothing to discover. You won't be able to raise the stakes because you've already let the reader know your endgame. Readers aren't stupid, they will recognize Chekov's gun when they see the finger point at it.

Allow the reader to discover things as the characters do. This creates empathy. It sounds like in your story the evidence will build over time anyway, so let it. Allow your characters to fall in the hole oblivious. Your characters should be lost in their lives so they don't see the hole coming. Once they climb out, they don't realize the full implications.

In the OP, immortality isn't important at all to the characters – until it is. It should be the same with the reader. They will follow what is important to the characters so keep your characters busy and don't give away the interesting parts until it fits dramatically with how the characters experience it.

The MC and his friends observe some odd things which don't seem important, so it should not appear as immortality or fate. Readers will get the idea when the story begins to revolve around it. Keep your readers in the present and allow them to discover the plot through the characters.

  • The risk is that (something like) immortality will be seen as a DEM if not properly foreshadowed. – DPT Dec 25 '18 at 12:35
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    LOLs. No, in fact I upvoted your answer when you posted yours, and almost commented 'pick this one, not mine' but did not in the end because the competitive aspect of SE has always seemed a little silly to me. Still, I believe that what the question is getting at is how do you prepare the reader for something that may come across as a DEM. I may well be wrong, but this is how the question reads to me. Your answers are very good across the board and I routinely up-vote them. – DPT Dec 25 '18 at 16:23
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Answer: In my experience, introduce hints / foreshadow through multiple different devices.

The most obvious is to have the character not die early on, as you suggest. This would communicate the information through action. He is in a fight scene, he gets stabbed, goes septic, and miraculously recovers without medical intervention or whatever. No one would miss this.

A less obvious way is through dialog. This is most effective if it is not a single line drop, but something more developed--an argument or other dynamic exchange, and information is presented back and forth and turned inside out, one person debating the illogic of it, another insisting that he knew someone that this had happened to, a third telling them he used to believe it but didn't anymore--something like this where the reader is sort of immersed in the controversy.

Less obvious yet is through narration. You simply state it. A single line will probably be missed.

You can add in legends, artifacts, memories, family stories, or even other similar abilities (perhaps the ability to heal others or whatever), and so on.

In the end, the more ways and more often the information comes up or is alluded to, the less likely the reader is to miss it. I suggest going overboard and asking your beta readers at what point they 'got it'. If you use the 'action scene' mechanism to show it, chances are that will be enough. If you use dialog, you might need a couple instances. And so on.

(And for what it is worth, one thing that was mentioned literally fifteen times in narration and dialog in my story was not noticed by one of my readers. She only saw the one instance of the 'thing' when it was used in action.)

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Setups are most rewarding when the reader realizes after the fact that that detail was important but doesn't figure it out too early (i.e. it's not more obvious than you wanted it to be). If a reader gets to the reveal without prior hints, that comes across as deus ex machina. If a reader gets to the reveal, smacks his forehead, and says "oh so that's what that was about!", it's a satisfying surprise. So you need to plant hints -- but since you're the author, you don't have a good way of judging whether they're too subtle or too obvious. (Beta readers will help you there.)

I recently took a class (The Art & Craft of Writing) by L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright, who offered these tips for placing clues:

  • In a list (the character gathered X, Y, and Z ingredients, one of which will be significant later), put the clue second in a pair or in the middle of a list of three or more. In my parenthetical example, Y is the important one.

  • If your characters come across evidence that leads to the right conclusion, don't avoid having them figure it out (making them look dumb in retrospect). Let them draw the obvious conclusion, and either encounter another obstacle to their goal (great, we know that we stop the villain by using X at time Y, but where will we get an X in time?) or draw the wrong conclusion because of partial information.

  • Try to put the supporting information into the story in a way that seems tangential. For example, if the villain is secretly trying to go to the moon, the characters might discover some solid rocket booster fuel in his lab and have no idea why it's there or that it's significant. Mixing in the previous bullet, perhaps they conclude he's building a bomb.

Finally (this is me, not Jagi), remember that your readers are reading the story and the meta-story -- some more than others, of course, but readers are aware of the fact that you are telling a story and you chose to include some details and exclude others. Your clues probably aren't as subtle as you worry they are. That's why it's important to bury some of your clues; if a clue is tied to a character's physical description and you only describe one character, that stands out. If you describe several, your clue is hidden -- but when the reader gets to the end and it turns out that the combination of blue eyes and jet-black hair was significant, it won't come out of nowhere.

9

I think the route taken in "Unbreakable" (a Bruce Willis movie) is a good example of how to do this.

Mainly, there are compelling clues that can be interpreted as either an effect, or extremely good luck, and even the character is leaning toward luck. In Unbreakable Bruce is the sole survivor of a horrific train wreck that kills hundreds of people; yet he survives (With minor cuts and bruises, as I recall). Then there are other incidents he also survives.

In this case he doesn't believe he is special. At one point his troubled son does believe it, and intends to shoot his father with a handgun to prove to Bruce that Bruce is a super-hero; and Bruce is terrified and trying to talk his distraught kid down.

The list of things Willis can survive grows; and I think the movie resolves itself without any definitive resolution, but by the end we (viewers) are convinced he is indeed unbreakable.

My point is, provide your evidence of the improbable in a way so it always seems true (and is explicitly stated) that a simple 1% chance of good luck could explain the outcome; but when these incidents get stacked it becomes implausible to think the character is hitting this 1% chance every single time it matters.

So the character was the sole survivor of battle; and claims he was just in the right place at the right time. Okay.

Then he was shot down in an aerial battle, his fighter blew up in mid-air, he claims he ejected just in time. Eyewitnesses claim that was impossible he couldn't see the missile coming! He claims it was luck, his plane got hit by strafing and wasn't responsive to controls so he ejected as the missile hit, got knocked out by the blast, and next thing he knows he was in his chute and hitting the water. But chute and ejection seat are at the bottom of the ocean, now.

Make each incident explainable by some other means so we can't be sure. But when this evidence accumulates we the viewers come to the conclusion the character can't be just lucky, there is something else going on. Then your reveal (wherever it occurs) is the twist. The character gets shot in the head point blank and is barely scratched, or the gun won't fire, or the gun fires and the bullet shatters the picture on the wall directly behind his head without doing anything TO his head. Whatever your immortality mechanism may be.

Then the reader can go back and see all his previous explanations were lies or deflections; he just can't be killed. And they knew something was up, so they don't feel like there was a deus ex machina.

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