Monday, November 9, 2009

Telegraphing: I See Where You’re Going

This article is going to tell you when you should and shouldn't use telegraphing. I hope I didn't spoil it for you.

Years ago, travel was long and difficult. You didn’t just head off to someone’s house at someone’s house. You might get there and the guy wouldn’t be home. It might not be so bad for you, but your horse might not like you all that much, since she’d have to carry you all the way back. And telephones were scarce, so you couldn’t just call up your friend and discuss when you would show up. Instead, you’d send a short message by telegraph, “Arriving April 17 by rail.” It’s just enough to tell your friend you’re coming.

What Telegraphing Is

Telegraphing in writing is very similar. Instead of sending a message saying, “I’m coming,” we’re telling the reader what to expect. This goes beyond foreshadowing, although they are closely related and what one person calls telegraphing another might call foreshadowing. If we look at the extremes, foreshadowing is only an indication of what might happen, while telegraphing is a clear statement of what will happen.  If we have a scene in which two children are playing with a gun, that is foreshadowing. We have an idea where this is headed. Someone’s going to get hurt or killed. But, if we were to write, “I know what it is to experience guilt because of the death of a sibling. When I was eight and my brother was five, I found the key to my father’s gun cabinet,” and then we went into the scene with two children playing with a gun, that is telegraphing. The reader not only has an indication of what might happen, he knows what is going to happen. We came right out and told him.

Arguments Against Its Use

The biggest argument against telegraphing is that it kills the suspense and removes the element of surprise. Its a good argument. If we’re writing suspense and we say something along the lines of “There’s this guy hiding in the bushes and he’s thinking about killing someone, but he won’t because a policeman will show up in about twenty seconds,”  there’s no suspense at all

Even if we aren’t aiming for suspense, if we put wording in our writing that causes a reader to say later, “Yeah, I saw that one coming,” we won’t hold the reader for long. In fact, the reader is likely to become frustrated. If we hold him for the rest of the book, we’ll be lucky and we probably won’t be able to sell him another book.

Arguments For Its Use

Almost every literary device that we’re told we shouldn’t use has a legitimate use, if you look hard enough. You don’t have to look far to find a few for telegraphing. The first argument for its use is that it is how we naturally tell stories. If you wreck your car. You aren’t likely to go home and say, “I was driving down the street and I saw these flowers on the side of the road. I pulled over to the side and got out to pick some. I didn’t have anything else to put them in, so I combined the groceries from one bag with another….” Whoever you’re talking to will likely excuse himself, so he doesn’t have to listen to a long drawn out story. Instead, you would say, “I wrecked the car.” After that, you would provide the details of how it happened. The listening now understands why what you are saying is important and he will listen.  When writing, telegraphing does the same thing. The reader needs to know where we’re headed so he understands the importance of the words. In that way, telegraphing is somewhat like the hook.

Though it can kill suspense, telegraphing can also be a means by which we build suspense. Above, I told you about two children playing with a gun. In one instance, I told you that one of them would die. That may seem to kill suspense, but if the reader know that a character is going to die, he becomes leery of turning the page and rounding the corner. He knows it’s going to happen, but he doesn’t know when or to whom. He turns the page gingerly, hoping death doesn’t jump out at him.

Telegraphing can add surprise. Going back to the two boys with the gun, the surprise is gone. We know what will happen and we’re just waiting for it. The gun goes off and lying on the floor dead, is the older sister, not the younger brother. The twist has greater punch when we use telegraphing. The reader knows what to expect and is waiting for it, but when it happens, he realizes it wasn’t as cut and dried as he thought it was.


By all means, use telegraphing, but use it well. Don’t just tell us what to expect and then give it to us. Give us reasons to read the details and combine telegraphing with a good twist to heighten the level of surprise.