Foreshadowing – Part One

BinocularsForeshadowing is an indication, a sign, or a warning of  what is coming in the future. It is an author’s way of introducing a later event in a story that might otherwise appear to have popped up out of nowhere.

The concept is simple, but not always easy to employ.

Too much foreshadowing can come across as heavy-handed or overly obvious. Readers might be offended that the author thinks he must reveal so much to his inobservant readers.

Too little foreshadowing can be missed by readers, and the hoped-for effect will be lost. They might think the new device is contrived, because they never saw it coming.

Authors hope to avoid both problems.

Here are the foreshadowing rules I follow:

  1. Every weapon, tool, ability, and unusual character should be foreshadowed.
  2. Show or indicate these devices in an inactive state before they become active.
  3. Allow their appearance in an inactive state to be incomplete or mysterious.

A simple example of rule #1 is a warrior’s sword. You should never show a warrior battling with a sword unless you first show the sword in a scabbard at his hip or in some other inactive state.

Imagine reading a story that follows a character for fifty pages, then on page fifty-one, a dragon swoops down and attacks him. He draws his sword and does battle. Yet, the author hasn’t mentioned the sword at all before this point. The character just suddenly has it.

That would jerk me out of the story. I would ask, “Where did that come from?” And it is this question that we hope to avoid through foreshadowing.

Regarding rule #2, showing the sword in battle is the active state. Showing the sword at the warrior’s hip is the inactive state. When you write that a warrior is carrying a sword, that reference doesn’t raise the “Where did that come from?” question. Readers accept device introductions in an inactive state. And once the device has been introduced, it can be activated, and readers know where it came from.

The inactive state has many options. The sword might not be at his hip. It could be hanging on the wall or embedded in a dead soldier’s chest. The key is to show it on the wall or in the chest before the warrior needs it for battle.

Rule #3 is optional, but it can be powerful. Suppose that the warrior battles by playing music rather than slashing with a sword. Instead of a sword, he carries a flute. Since the flute’s battle purpose isn’t obvious, you can be mysterious and not reveal its use completely until the time it becomes active.

Yet, you still need to show the flute in its inactive state, and you should provide hints regarding its power. If people ask the warrior about the flute, he can be coy or quote an old prophecy that merely hints at its use. He might play a tune that makes people uncomfortable, which implies that the flute has some sort of power beyond producing music.

Then when a battle comes, you can show its full power. Since you have established that it has supernatural abilities, readers are expecting more.

Any story element that feels like a surprise should be foreshadowed. For example, in my book Starlighter, Koren comes upon a building and notices its features:

She pressed her forehead against two cool bars and peered in between. A semicircular apse lay at the far end of the high-roofed building, the Separators’ meeting place where, according to the theories of some slaves, they determined Promotions and many Assignments. Behind that, a lofty dome with a central belfry towered over the rest of the building. The bell inside rang at midday and also whenever a Promotions ceremony had ended. Now it was time to find a way in to see all these mysteries for herself.

This foreshadows the fact that the building has a bell in a tower.

In another passage, she notices this:

A light flickered from somewhere within the Zodiac’s deep recessed portico. Someone was at work, studying the stars, their positions, their movements. Was it Arxad? Had he been unable to sleep? It wouldn’t be unusual. He often wandered the corridors of his cave and sometimes journeyed back to the Zodiac if something troubled his mind.

This foreshadows that Arxad might be nearby.

Together, these two passages create a foreshadowing setup–a bell and a character in inactive states.

Later, both devices become active and the foreshadowing is delivered:

She looked back across the Separators’ assembly room. A dragon-like shadow in full flight appeared in the opposite corridor. Was it Maximus?

With a quick jerk, she lifted the lantern’s glass and blew out the flame. She leaped into a sprint, the fire behind her providing enough light. Soon, the walls curved, blocking the assembly room’s firelight.

Once again probing the dark air with her hands, she slowed. Her fingers struck something solid, a flat wall. A dead end! Yet, something fibrous brushed her face. It moved easily from side to side. Was it a rope?

She set the lantern down and grasped the rope, a braided cord too thick to wrap her fingers around, but a series of knots helped her get a grip. With her first pull, the rope descended with her weight. A loud gong sounded above. Then, the rope jerked her upward, and another gong reverberated all around.

Koren grimaced. A bell! She scrambled up the knotted cord. If she could just—

A gust of wind blew her hair. As a third gong sounded, something sharp clawed the back of her shirt and yanked her away from the rope and into the air. She flew into the upper chamber and fell to the floor on her backside. A dragon landed next to her and shouted, “Fool of a girl!”

Koren pushed with her feet and slid away, but when the dragon’s face clarified, she stopped. “Arxad?”

If I had failed to show the inactive bell in advance, Koren’s accidental use of the bell would feel contrived. If I had not suggested that Arxad might be near, his sudden appearance would have come out of nowhere.

Yet the passage about the inactive bell did not reveal how it would activate. The reference to Arxad did not tell readers that he would rescue Koren. Still, the bell and Arxad were placed in readers’ minds through foreshadowing, so they became allowable tools for future activation.

Besides avoiding reader frustration, foreshadowing also adds connection and cohesiveness. Good foreshadowing makes the story feel like more than a jumble of events. The pieces feel joined in an orderly manner.

The connection also adds to a sense of fulfillment, that ideas come to fruition, that apparent randomness has an ultimate goal or purpose. Readers might not sense this cohesion consciously, but they will notice its absence if story elements fly in at random or if foreshadowed elements never come to pass. In such cases, readers have an innate sense that something is wrong. Most are uncomfortable with a chaotic world.

In future tips, I will discuss more foreshadowing methods and provide more examples.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them, including any foreshadowing examples you might have.

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7 replies

  1. When I was editing my novel, I noticed that my character suddenly had a pocketknife that hadn’t been mentioned before. In order to fix that, I had his mother give it to him as a gift, and he remembered it in the time of crisis. Do you think that’s good or it it too contrived?

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  2. Great advice once again! 🙂 I especially liked the emphasis on foreshadowing the object/character/ability in an inactive state.

    In one of my stories, a character is captured in battle, unbeknownst to the main characters, and is replaced by a villainous look-alike. Slight behavior changes are noticed by the MCs as the novel progresses, and those signs escalate up until the final reveal. That was probably one of the trickiest things I’ve foreshadowed.

    One question: would the techniques you discussed apply to the foreshadowing of a villain’s plot or a future event?

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  3. Okay, well, uh is this an okay shadowing or too complex:
    I have in the past of the story a soldier named Lan who faces tragedy. Then I go back to the present of the story, in which my protag is a prisoner to a bandit. My protag encounters something strange, a hand she sees, one with a scar down it. She suspects that this is the bandit’s prisoner. I mentioned in the story past with Lan that he got wounded on his hand. I also made the bandit worn and scarred, but not as specifically. So, the twist is that the bandit and the soldier are the same person, and my protag is wrong, there is no prisoner (unless you count a prisoner of thought, but that has nothing to do with it). So, with my foreshadowing of the hand thing, making the reader think there is a prisoner, but making it plausible there is not, with this twist, is this acceptable? Will it even make sense? Is it too complicated? And is there another way I could foreshadow this twist of character?

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    • Certainly showing a man with a scar earlier in the story foreshadows the showing of a scar later, so that’s good, but it’s hard for me to know if it works or makes sense without reading the story.

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