[Spoiler alert: DON’T read this post if you haven’t yet read Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for ruining Atonement for anyone. Go and read it now. Go on. You’ll thank me.]
Here’s a technique I find really fascinating. I’ve only seen it used a few times, and have been unable to discover any proper term for it, so I gave it my own name: relego. I’m thinking of it as Latin for “need to re-read”.
From re- (“again”) + legō (“choose, gather”).
(Classical) IPA: /ˈre.le.ɡoː/
present active relegō
Relego refers to a technique which has the following steps:
•A scene in which the writer carefully leads the reader to think he/she knows what is going on in the story; that he/she has been given sufficient information to grasp the meaning of events – “bomb”
•A scene which throws a completely different light on the earlier scene, and thus gives a different meaning to events that have occurred in the interim (and even earlier) – “trigger”
•The reader is forced to return to the earlier scene and re-read it (even to re-read the whole book) in order to comprehend the newly-revealed meaning
To qualify as relego, what happens can’t be just a shelved idea being unshelved, or something foreshadowed that comes up again or pays off. It’s not just a “twist”, it’s a particular kind of twist. It’s not just “that’s not where I thought we were going” but “that’s not where I thought we were”.
•The protagonist knows what’s really going on but the reader doesn’t
•The protagonist starts to realise what’s going on just before the reader does, or vice versa
•The reader and the protagonist find out together
The best example I know of this is in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. He does it less dramatically though no less effectively in The Child In Time. In film, some examples include The Sixth Sense, The Crying Game and The Others – relego is what makes you say “What???? I have to watch the whole film over again”. There’s also a good example in YA fiction, in K.M. Peyton’s Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer.
The acts of writing and reading are a dance between writer and reader. Relego is a kind of joke the writer plays on the reader – part of the dance, the relationship, the interaction, the seduction. The satisfaction for the reader lies somewhere in the intimacy of sharing this joke with the writer – being his/her willing victim. The emotional charge and the moral message are worth the embarrassment of having been duped. Essentially relego is a comic technique even where the comedy is dark (eg. The Child in Time, The Crying Game); even where it is cataclysmically so (Atonement, The Others).
How does McEwan do it?
• Viewpoint – intimate 3rd person narration, so we cannot know more than the character knows
• Vision – details plus the meaning attributed to them by the character (eg. “he… shifted into her sight line, which she was too tired or indifferent to adjust”; The Child In Time)
• Velocity – use pace to skip over the moment, keep the reader from reading too closely, encourage them to believe they’ve “got the gist” of what the moment means eg. we’re focussed on whether or not Edward will give Stephen a lift, not on his off-hand question about when Stephen last saw Julie (The Child In Time)
• Vocabulary – word choice, connotations eg. Stephen attributes “indifference” to the beggar girl, Edward’s “that figures” is the kind of vague thing people say without meaning anything (The Child In Time)
•Under-specification, so long as it’s not obvious that something’s missing eg. we don’t know what Julie says to Stephen on the phone but in the next chapter we see him heading towards her so we assume she offered reconciliation, and we think that’s all that’s happening (The Child In Time)
•Exploit readers’ unconscious assumptions about society, narratives eg. we assume society won’t simply allow a child to die of cold, so that’s not our first interpretation of what we’re seeing (The Child In Time). We assume that in 3rd person intimate POV the character we follow is “real” and any proposed alternative version of the character pursuing a different course of action must be “imaginary”, so we’re misled by the “ghostly Briony” who heads back to the hospital (Atonement)
Can we try this at home?
Sure we can.
1. Write a short scene that appears to mean one thing but actually means another. Not just ambiguous (could mean one thing or the other), but actively misleading. Some of the above points may help. This is the “bomb”.
2. Write a short scene to occur later in the story, which will make the reader say “What the…???” and rush back to re-read the bomb. This is the trigger.
3. When you re-read the bomb, imagine the experience of the reader coming back to re-read this after the trigger. How can you strengthen it – ensure the reader strikes her forehead dramatically and thinks “how could I have missed that?” – without giving the game away on the first reading.
4. Without having to write the whole story, think about what impact the triggered bomb may have – what did the reader think was going on? How has the triggered bomb changed the meaning of subsequent events?