In my last article about Show and Tell (here), I briefly mentioned Foreshadowing. I have been inundated by five emails demanding I explain a little more about this useful writing tool. So here goes…
Many eons ago, shortly after the dinosaurs died out, I decided to become a writer. Little did I know what the future held in store for me…
That’s foreshadowing for you.
What have I just done?
I have created tension, expectancy in my readers – yes, I’ve manipulated their emotional response again and pressed the ‘Reader Engagement’ button. Now that’s just one way you can use foreshadowing in your books. Note, I didn’t say novels; there’s no reason at all why this technique cannot be applied to non-fiction.
Whoa! You’re racing ahead again. Hold up! What exactly is a foreshadow?
Many eons ago, just after the dinosaurs died out, I attended my first ‘Presentation Skills’ course. I was lucky the instructor had many years of experience and took a practical approach to how he explained the subject. I came away from that course with a bushel-load of techniques and tricks that have stood me in good stead in hundreds of presentations I have done over the years and which I’ve managed to apply to my writing career too. One of these was a mantra about the structure of a presentation:
“Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; tell ‘em; then tell ‘em what you told them!”
In other words, foreshadow the presentation first to create interest before you start. (It’s also useful for the attendees so that anyone who finds themself in the wrong lecture hall can leave early). More succinctly, to foreshadow is to provide your audience with information or hints about matters that will come later. You will have encountered this technique everywhere from novels and non-fiction, through movies and TV series, and yes, even in the lecture hall. Mystery writers do it all the time!
Remember English Lit? Ol’ Willy Shakespeare? Macbeth? The bit that starts off with
“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
That fantastic initial scene with the witches (what? You didn’t know that Will Shakespeare wrote about witches? You don’t know what you’ve been missing! J.K. Whatshername didn’t invent them, ya know!), that whole scene is all about foreshadowing the events that will play out in MacB’s immediate future.
Why should you use foreshadowing?
Well I’ve already mentioned creating expectation, anticipation and dramatic tension by foreshadowing something. It is also used to tease your readers; I had a lot of fun with this in ‘the CULL’. My novel is liberally sprinkled with hints about Katie’s future, none of which hit the reader until the final couple of chapters, and this in turn serves to foreshadow the next book in the series as I mentioned in the previous article. The technique is also used to prepare your reader for something that will come to pass later too. And, as I have already inferred, it is used to lay ‘red herrings’ both in Mystery novels and in other genres, including Thrillers.
Okay, how should you not use foreshadowing?
To answer this, we should listen to the sage advice of Mr.Anton Chekhov:
“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
That wonderful soupçon of wisdom from a letter he wrote in 1889 to a fellow writer, Lazarev-Gruzinsky, known as Chekov’s Law of Relevance or, more commonly, Chekov’s Gun, sums it up in a nutshell.
Now I’m sure you can think of examples. The one that springs to mind immediately for me is a certain TV series loaded with apparent foreshadowing that was never, ever referred to and proved extraneous as the series ended somewhat ignominiously. I’m sure this reference is not ‘Lost’ on you.
As you are doing your self-edits before dispatching your masterpiece to a second set of editorial eyeballs, you should be on the lookout for unrequited foreshadows – add it to the list.
When should you foreshadow?
This all depends on your story structure and your own method of writing. If you decide that you will use this device, you could write your complete novel then go back and introduce foreshadowed hints at suitable moments – just make sure you have addressed them in the story or Mr.Chekhov’s ghost will come to visit. Occasionally I have heard this retro-foreshadowing technique referred to as ‘backwriting’.
Okay. Got that. But exactly how do you foreshadow?
The key to good foreshadowing is subtlety. You are looking to generate an emotional response when you do it, but the big payoff comes later in that “Aha!” moment when the reader realizes they knew all along, yet they didn’t, that something was going to happen. Hint at events, or rather the possibility of events, rather than spelling it out piecemeal. Let’s face it, if you had seen the last episode of ‘L***’ beforehand, would you have watched the whole series?
This subtlety can be as unobtrusive as showing (that word again) how one or more of your characters react to objects or events in the present, which then precondition your reader for future happenings. I opened ‘the CULL’, breaking as many Writing Rules as I could, with the start of a huge thunderstorm – it served to create an atmosphere for the forthcoming dark deeds as well as hint at what was going to happen to one of the secondary characters. Or you can be so obtuse that almost no one notices. The movie ‘Forrest Gump’ is riddled with foreshadowing. Some of it is delicately obvious, such as teaching Elvis how to move his pelvis or the comment about something going on in one of the rooms in the Watergate building. Some is downright devious – right at the start of the movie the protagonist opens his suitcase and we get to see a number of objects which effectively summarize his life.
You can also be openly direct and show future events at some point in your narrative. This is known as a Flash-forward and needs to be handled with care. The trick is often to show either a possibility or a misdirection (the ‘red herring’ approach) rather than a complete certainty.
You can have a great deal of fun playing with foreshadowing in your novels, just remember not to overdo it.
I foreshadow a bestseller in my future…
Want more Tips, Tricks and Techniques from Eric:
‘How NOT to be an ASPIRING Writer’