The Callback Technique

Ah the mighty callback technique. Comedians use it to wrap up their shtick (some nights I think Letterman uses it exclusively). But it is powerful in other types of writing as well. For example a second viewing of M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense shows numerous hints and details which point to the surprise ending. For me the details weren’t vivid enough that I immediately recalled them upon seeing the reveal and it was only through the magic of montage that they were brought back to me. And in one case I misremembered a scene completely, the one where he sits with the boy’s mother, for those who’ve seen it. I am trying not to be spoilerific in this post.

The second example is also the second most powerful for me. They occur in the writings of Gene Wolfe, my favorite Speculative Fiction writer of the past three years. Now, mind you, these are my interpretation of the stories, and so others may read the same and come to different conclusions. Also, a warning, I won’t be able to do these justice without some spoilage, so if you have yet to read The Knight or The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe skip to the section of asterisks ******

Is it just us left? Good. So you’ve good taste and you’ve already read those or you don’t think it’ll ruin your enjoyment and you’ve decided to risk it. Or you’re just a curious one. Okay last chance.

Alright you’re committed. Here’s the goods. In The Knight, Wolfe’s main character Sir Able of the High Heart is a boy in a man’s body. He starts working at a farm with a guy who thinks Able’s his brother. He tells Able about the Bodachan, brown elves who will work a whole day plowing his fields for a drop of human blood. Later, wandering the woods alone save for an infant that he is not sure how to care for Able comes across some Bodachan. They tell Able that they will trade him a dog for his baby. They will raise the baby in their realm, training him and strengthening him to come back and avenge his mother’s death upon his murderous father. Able hands over the kid and goes on quite contented (this reminds me of an immature limerick I will share later). At first I was just as glad that it worked out. Then it hit me. The only other thing I knew about the Bodachan was that they would work all day in the field for just one drop of human blood. Able had made a horrible mistake and I was the only one who knew about it! Well, me and the Bodachan. That impact displayed the power of the callback. One vivid detail, early on that seems like innocuous world-building, and yet because it was memorable (unlike Shyamalan’s red doorknob for me anyway) it immediately came to mind in a way that recontextualized the entire encounter. It didn’t support the reveal, it wasthe reveal.

Likewise in The Fifth Head of Cerberus there is a character who is searching for the Abo’s, the aliens that used to live on the planet before we got there. In collecting information he hears that the Abo’s were shapeshifters capable of looking like haystacks or rocks to avoid detection. Later as the man is climbing across the cliff face he is seen to clutch a rock, scream and then fall to his death. And that’s all we get. He had a climbing mishap. But the detail of the Abo’s looking like a rock rang in my mind and even though it wasn’t written on the page, I am convinced that what happened is he grabbed a rock which opened it’s eyes. He was startled and fell and ironically died just as he found what he was looking for. Again, vivid detail dismissed early comes to mind to change the meaning of the part of the story you are in with full emotional freight. Boom! Callback!


End of Spoilers


The third is for me the most powerful. To atheists or agnostics this one will probably not be as powerful as the Gene Wolfe stuff, but I guarantee he would agree this one is better. Full disclosure, I am a Christian and I believe the Bible is God-breathed using the different human writers over the centuries, cultures and continents to tell one story. One of the reasons I am convinced of this is the mighty callback. I was looking into some of the predictions and prophecies that Jesus fulfilled during his lifetime. There are some general predictions, like in Isaiah 53, written 700 years before he showed up talking about how the Messiah would be crushed for our sins, bruised for our iniquities, as well as some specific ones, like “by his stripes we are healed” referencing his scourging and the fact that he would be assigned a pauper’s grave but be buried in a rich man’s tomb. Those are powerful arguments as to the validity of Christ’s claims in my book, but that’s not what I want to reference here. Other prophecies were not specific or general predictions, but things that didn’t make sense until Jesus came. There were prophecies that he would come from Nazareth, Egypt and Bethlehem. How could this be true of one person? Then when Jesus came we see him born in Bethlehem, to Nazarite parents who have to flee and raise him in Egypt. Even more callbacky are the lines of poetry that David wrote, that seemed like just that for 1000 years until Jesus came. Take this one from Psalms:
Psalm 22:16 (New International Version)

16 Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.

This was almost a millennia before the Romans even invented crucifixion as a means of capital punishment.

David was writing his lines of poetry. It wasn’t until Christ’s death that we could look back and this detail comes to mind, adding context and a hint to the plans of the Author behind the writer. Boom callback. And this example isn’t singular by any means. There are over 300 prophecies and predictions that the historical Jesus met in his lifetime. Little detaily stuff like that he would be served vinegar for his thirst and the like.

So whether the religious stuff is inspiring to you, or it sets your heathen teeth on edge, what we can all agree on as writers is that this callback technique is a powerful and ancient one, adding depth and resonance to the works that contain it.

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