Today, hopefully without boring you, I want to talk about one of my favorite literary devices: foreshadowing. It doesn’t get a lot of press or mention in writerly circles, at least not the ones I frequent. I don’t know why. Maybe everyone’s too busy avoiding the dreaded mid-scene point of view (POV) switch, or it’s a lot more fun to argue why first person, present tense (FPPT) is for amateurs. Except of course when we’re battling over commas, typos, and grammar! (See there? I used an Oxford comma–just sayin’).
Now, all those things are great, and important, and worthy of thoughtful consideration. But come on. Let’s talk about foreshadowing.
First, what is foreshadowing? According to one definition,
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which a writer gives an advance hint of what is to come later in the story. Foreshadowing often appears at the beginning of a story or a chapter and helps the reader develop expectations about the coming events in a story.
Why do I love foreshadowing? For at least three reasons.
I love giving my readers hints and clues
From the definition itself one can see how foreshadowing predicts or prepares the ground for an upcoming event. As a reader, I like getting to a latter part of the story and realizing the author has been leaving breadcrumbs all along that lead up to the current point in the story. It’s clever, and I like clever, I guess. Well-formulated foreshadowing doesn’t spoil what is to come, but builds up to it. If I’ve been trying to solve the puzzle, it gives me a chance, and if not, when I finally spot it I can still say, “Aha, clever!”
In other words, as readers, foreshadowing gives us an extra bump of intellectual stimulation that enhances the journey of imagination reading and storytelling provide us.
Foreshadowing in a story suggests forethought… or does it?
I also love foreshadowing because it shows the author was thinking ahead, planning the story, setting up what would come next by laying a foundation of facts and tidbits that support what happens. This aspect of foreshadowing intimidated me as a writer. It still does, actually. Sometimes, I can’t see that far ahead. I may plan some parts of my stories, or I may pre-visualize them, but when I get there, things take a different course. Does that mean I can’t use foreshadowing?
As it turns out, the answer is no. Since I’m not prescient, I often add foreshadowing during the second and subsequent passes through the story. I edit it in!
It worked out this way during my second and third pass edits of Virtual Identity. Oh, I had included a few hints along the way about the big reveal at the end. But it wasn’t until the edit cycle that I devised the full set of clues and hints. Why? Because then I knew what had happened in full. In some cases I even modified prior events to better support subsequent ones. As I finished out the latest draft, I realized that I can use several prior events to lead up to the addition of one final twist in the story’s ending. In other words, events that I didn’t think were foreshadowing turned into it–they were there all along, waiting for me to discover the true and better ending! What’s there not to love about that?
I love it when a story comes and holds together
One can think of a story as a chain (reaction?) of connected events and character interactions that fuel and carry it along to its (logical?) conclusion. When well constructed, these story links happen in a natural and satisfying (for the reader) fashion. I see foreshadowing as yet another chain, a less visible one. This secondary chain carries the story forward in more nuanced, subtle ways, a layer or two under the surface. Viewed this way, you can see that foreshadowing strengthens how the story holds together. It sits there, underneath the main chain of events and interactions, lending it additional foundation and cohesiveness. Even if I as a reader don’t notice it in full, even if I only care about the “main thing,” it still provides added solidity to the overall narrative.
In another of my ongoing projects, Quantum Law, I am seeing foreshadowing work this way. For this story, now a two book set, foreshadowing within each book sets up the climax and conclusion. More than that, foreshadowing from one book supports what happens in the next. With it in place, not only does each book intertwine a stronger fabric, but the entire narrative extending through the two books enjoys the same cohesiveness.
Beware of the obvious spoiler
I alluded above at one possible danger with foreshadowing: the dreaded spoiler! As a reader, I don’t like it so well when someone telegraphs what’s going to happen. Foreshadowing done that way has a lot of “Fore!” and little if any “shadowing.” That hint or clue has to lurk far enough under the shadows to make me wonder and keep me reading.
What about you? What do you think about foreshadowing? How has it worked (or not) for you in a given story?