The Art of Foreshadowing


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The Art of Foreshadowing


What is it?

Quite simply, foreshadowing is to hint at something, in a casual way, where it will be brought up again later on in the story in a more significant and relevant way. The ‘art’ is in exactly how you lay that little hint, without telegraphing “THIS IS IMPORTANT! REMEMBER IT!”.


Why it’s important

Story telling is easy. No, really, it is! The art is in how you tell the story, that’s what makes it scary, exciting, sexy, etc. Foreshadowing is a very important tool to use in many, if not most, stories. I’m sure most of us have watched movies where all of a sudden, the hero just happens to find the one thing he or she needs to save the day. “Oh that was convenient!” we shout at the screen. It’s far too convenient, and therefore, annoying, for the hero of your story to miraculously find exactly the right thing he or she needs right when they need it the most. This is the reaction you’ll get for unrealistic and unbelievable story telling. What you need to do is to leave a little hint earlier in the story, something that, at the time, didn’t seem all that relevant or important to the story, but allows the reader to later say, “Oh, so that’s why the author did that!”

Foreshadowing is more important in some stories than others. Detective mysteries rely very heavily on foreshadowing. Everyone reading the story is hoping to guess who the killer is before the detective, and a well written story should provide enough hints to allow the reader to do this, if only they work out what’s important and what’s a red herring. There’s nothing worse than coming to the conclusion and realising that the detective was apparently privy to information that we, the reader, were not. This is bitterly frustrating and poor story telling. When the detective goes through the steps that allowed him or her to catch the killer, everything there should be something that the reader could also have picked up on. Nothing should be a clue that we hadn’t been exposed to in some way.

As suggested above, you can also use foreshadowing to misdirect the reader, by laying a hint that you know the reader will think is important but is actually a red herring. You would then follow it up a little later with another hint – the true one, this time – but because the reader has thought the earlier hint was the real one, they might be tempted to overlook the true one. I think you’d need to be a little careful with how you do this, because it can backfire if done poorly. If done right, though, then it can be a clever way to get the reader to watch your left hand while your right pulls the card out of your sleeve.  On the other hand, some stories, like detective stories, rely very heavily on leaving plenty of clues and red herrings, creating a pretty tangled web that needs to be weaved with great care.  This is why a good detective story can be so difficult to write.  Huge respect to Agatha Christie!


How and when to foreshadow

More often than not, foreshadowing should be of the fairly subtle kind. If it’s shouted from the rooftops then it can cause the reader to keep a close eye out for it, so when it happens, it’s of no surprise at all to the reader, and, frankly, spoils the story. A better way is to drop the hint in such a way as to cause the reader to either all but forget about it, or to make the reader think that your hint was just a bit of flavouring, and nothing more important than that.

You can go overboard with foreshadowing though. If everything in your story is important, then the reader soon learns to understand that everything you mention is going to have something relevant to do with the climax of your story, which only helps to lessen the impact. By adding things to your story that aren’t important, it ensures the reader is never sure what’s important and what’s not. On the other hand, when you later proofread your story, you might actually see how you could turn one of these story flavour enhancers into an actual foreshadow. But as I said, these ‘story flavour enhancers’ should rarely be promoted as “THIS IS IMPORTANT” moments. Describing how the ashtray on the coffee table is overflowing with ash and cigarette butts might just be a way to simply show that the occupant is a smoker and a bit messy or lazy, or it might have important relevance later on. Who knows? Certainly not the reader, and that’s what’s most important.

Remember, foreshadowing should very rarely be obvious. It should be a fairly subtle hint that the reader may or may not pick up on. Too overt a hint comes across as too obvious and too forced. It needs to flow naturally with the story, appearing as something that is nothing more than a flavour enhancer.

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