I Didn’t See That Coming – Foreshadowing

I was very excited to find a blog post on foreshadowing this morning. Unfortunately, it didn’t really tell me anything about foreshadowing. It told me more about the author’s latest book. That’s all well and good, but I was put off. It felt like someone was pulling the old bait and switch on me. That makes me cranky. When I get cranky, I do something about it. So this morning, I wrote my own damn post on foreshadowing. So there.

On About.com Richard Nordquist defines foreshadowing thusly: The presentation of details, characters, or incidents in a narrative in such a way that later events are prepared for (or “shadowed forth”).

In short, it’s setting the stage for future events. Foreshadowing creates a mood. It sets up the audience for the main conflict and the climax, or the catalysts that bring about the climax. It’s a device mystery writers use to plant red herrings and lead the reader to the clues that solve the case. In horror, it’s used to create mood and warn audiences not to get too attached to that character because he or she will be the next victim. In romance, it provides the niggling little doubts as to whether or not the hero and heroine will end up together.

Most readers never consciously notice it. Executed properly, it is very subtle and paves the way for the emotional impact the writer seeks to evoke. Writing fiction is all about evoking emotion. I’ll go back and say it again. The first and greatest lesson I learned was that as a writer, if you’re not evoking emotion in your reader, you may as well be writing a cookbook. But then, even the best cookbooks evoke some kind of emotion these days.

I mention foreshadowing because I’m consciously using it in HERO’S END. 29543_322708094509389_1163963974_nThere’s a bit of a mystery going on and foreshadowing is a natural tool in mysteries. Foreshadowing isn’t all dark portents either. As a writer, if I’m going to use an object to save the day, or to slay the bad guy on page 180, I need to introduce the object around page 20 or so. If a fact is going to be the catalyst for an emotional scene, I need to allude to the fact early and repeat it a few times before it actually causes the issue. If the reader hasn’t built up the same emotional response as the character, when the character explodes in a ball of angst, it seems to have come out of left field. Or if one of your characters must die in keeping with the story line, you need to prepare the reader for it. Think red shirts.

Some writers call it back-writing. Once you’ve written the main story, you go back through and sprinkle the images, references, clues and allusions throughout the story, building up to the climax or event.

In SOVRAN’S PAWN, I used Blade’s sunshades, which interfaced with his IC data reader for a head’s up display. I introduced the shades with Blade when he met Bo. I introduced the interface in the following chapter. At the climax, the shades and their interface were vital for getting him where he needed to be. Without the mention of them earlier, it would have seemed like a Deus Ex Machina intervention and a cheap device.

I read a debut novel by an author of my acquaintance in which her main character does a complete about-face of personality at the climax. Unfortunately, there was no foreshadowing of this possibility, so when it happened, her readers rebelled. Because her book was published by an imprint of a large publishing house, there’s really no excuse. This is the kind of thing good editors and beta readers normally catch.

Never underestimate the value of foreshadowing or the subtlety of a skilled hand on the pen.

6 thoughts on “I Didn’t See That Coming – Foreshadowing

  1. I guess I never really considered planting items earlier in a book as foreshadowing as much as it was effective plotting…foreshadowing, to me, was planting an expectation for future events to unfold, something akin to old horror movies where a stranded driver approaches an old abandoned farmhouse, and you just know something really horrible is going to happen pretty soon. Much like in my novel FRIENDS IN DEED, when Aston and Jeanie discuss the fact that the Cassus twins were likely incarcerated for good reason…and Aston’s on his way to meet up with the two.

    1. I’ve heard that form of foreshadowing referred to as Chekov’s gun. If you’re going to use a device later on, you need to introduce it early in the story. It is considered a form of foreshadowing.

      Foreshadowing can be a comment with double meaning that becomes apparent later in the story, like in Star Wars Episode II when Obi-Wan says to Anakin “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?”

      It can also be a description of moss hanging from the trees “like dead men on the gallows,” alluding to a character’s impending execution, or the sound of blueflies, as in A Tale of Two Cities, foreshadowing Sydney Carton’s death.

      1. Of course, with the Chekov’s gun reference, I’ve just heard it as “if you’re going to show a gun in the first few chapters, it had better have a purpose later in the story.” 🙂

  2. jmfilipowicz

    I love when each and every seemingly trivial detail has some pay off later on. Of course, such stories are difficult to craft.

    1. Difficult to craft, yes, but that’s what separates the master writer from the hack. I won’t be able to consider myself a truly skilled writer until I can accomplish that.

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