Foreshadowing can make a good story an amazing story.
Let me tell you a little something about myself: I’m one of those people. I can always tell where the story is going by reading into and picking up the hints dotted along the trail in books, tv, and movies. Now, I’m not a jerk. I never voice my predictions aloud because I’m not into the business of ruining it for everyone else. In fact, I’m usually disappointed in myself because I’m rarely surprised. I don’t do it intentionally, but I just can’t help but to deduce a conclusion from what’s given to me. I know I’m not special in this regard and I feel there’s a reason that I, and many others, are this way. The foreshadowing is done wrong. It’s lingered on, or out of nowhere, or is even out of place until the very end. Of course it’s even worse when there isn’t any foreshadowing and things happen because the writer decided “because I said so”. That is by far the worst crime here.
So, when should we use foreshadowing?
First let’s look at what foreshadowing actually is. According to Google, foreshadowing is “a warning or indication of (a future event)”. Foreshadowing can be necessary in certain conditions, but you have to be careful of how often and how strongly it’s implied. You can even disguise it in a way that it’s not noticeable. As an example of what not to do, I read a book a few years back about a princess (it was a historical fiction about a real woman) and at the end when confronted with physical conflict, she magically knew how to handle a rapier. She was not only gifted with this magical, yet never previously mentioned ability, but she was also able to beat another master. Moments like those feel as though the author pulled a suitable trait out of a black hat for convenience. Even the most simple sentence earlier in the story with a mention of training or experience would have solved any qualms I had.
The art of foreshadowing is also subtlety.
There is a fine, delicate, dear lord don’t drop that balance of foreshadowing. How do you apply it so that the ending makes sense, yet the clues aren’t super obvious? It’s impossible to do for everyone. Plain and simple. You have to cater it to the majority of folks. There are always going to be people like me calculating and predicting on a compulsive level. There will also always be people who need to be hit in the head with a brick (figuratively of course) in order to understand the clues. There is a balance, however, that can satisfy most consumers. Finding it can prove difficult.
What do I suggest?
I’ve heard many times that mystery/thriller writers outline their stories backwards. Well, and that’s the first thing too, outline your story. It is always an option to write your story and implement foreshadowing during rewrites because as you’re now well aware I say do what works for you. When it comes to creativity I don’t really believe there’s a right or wrong way to do things, just a suggested way.
Don’t overwhelm yourself. Foreshadowing doesn’t have to be some complicated imagery or mysterious dialogue. It can be a simple sentence in passing. There, noticeable, but not shouting out “hey! look at me!” One of the best examples of foreshadowing I can give you is from the film Abnormal Beauty. If you want to watch it, well stop reading because spoilers ahead! It’s a Hong Kong film by the Pang brothers (who brought us The Eye) about “A teen girl with artistic inclinations, Jiney (Race Wong) takes acclaimed photographs but is unhappy with her work. After witnessing a fatal car crash and shooting pictures at the grisly scene, Jiney becomes preoccupied with death. Followed by the obsessive, camcorder-wielding Anson (Anson Leung), Jiney soon heads down a dark path. While Jiney’s friend Jas (Rosanne Wong) tries to help her, it may be too late to prevent her macabre decline, which has roots in a childhood trauma.”
The reason I bring up this film in particular is because of what I mentioned above, I am rarely surprised. This movie surprised me. It foreshadowed who the culprit was in a clever, yet sensible, way. Throughout the whole film you’re thinking it’s the friend, Anson. It seems a little obvious but that certainly hasn’t stopped filmmakers before. The killer (again, spoiler warning even though this movie is 12 years old) is actually in a bit part. Jiney goes into a bookstore to buy a book of photography on death and the clerk has her fill out an information card to join their rewards program. Well, the stalker is the clerk. It was quick, brief, and very effective! He had all of her information from the rewards card and even made conversation with her about the book and her interests. I know reading about it in paraphrasing has watered down the effect, but obviously this movie has stuck with me for that one particular reason. It was foreshadowing at its finest.
In my own novel I have things planted, some obvious and some not. I have things planted in the first book that don’t come to light until the third. A fantasy novel is different from a mystery or thriller, however, and that’s another challenge itself. What kind of story you’re writing will determine what kind of foreshadowing to use.
Let’s Do Some Exercises
1. What needs to be foreshadowed?
What are the parts of your story that have a twist? A climax? What are the things that you want to shock the reader with? What revelations?
2. Do those things need to be foreshadowed?
Your story may lead the way to a revelation without any need for foreshadowing. Foreshadowing shouldn’t be used for the sake of having it, but if it’s necessary. Like the princess example I gave above, foreshadowing was necessary to make it believable. Women weren’t traditionally taught how to fight or yield weapons in those times. However, it wouldn’t have been necessary if it mentioned her being a good dancer as it was common for royal women to know how to dance. You have to keep in mind general knowledge of the subject. Of course if it’s a made up world, readers will still fill in the gaps with the other cultural clues you give them.
3. Let’s Practice
Ex) I need to show my readers that Joseph can in fact ride a horse with no saddle, as it will be pivotal to the final scene.
“As the herd galloped beside his pick-up, Joseph laughed. The dip in their backs and flowing manes reminded him of his younger years before he gave in to the saddle. His freedom on the bare back of his own chestnut mare brought him closer to her. The saddle blocked the connection he always felt towards Daisy, but as time wore on and his health declined the mane and bare back gave way to the bridle and horn he would need to hold onto.”
Not my best example, but an example nonetheless. So if later on in the story Joseph finds that he can once again reprise his role as a cowboy without a saddle, it’s believable and certainly doable. It also plays a double role in laying out his backstory whilst preparing the reader for future accomplishments.
Ex2) I need readers to know that my princess is proficient with a rapier.
“Princess Royalface waved goodbye to her father as the carriage passed through the iron gate. She covered her mouth with her manicured hand, tears welling her eyes. She was going to a strange husband, home, and livelihood. Gone were the days of playtime and fanciful daydreams. In her mother’s absence, King Royalface taught her the skills of a well-versed prince; the art of politics, war, and hours of practice with a rapier. She beat him for the first time when she was twelve, and over the years as her father slowed and she quickened, the princess found herself faking incompetence to ease his old pride.”
This serves as not only foreshadowing but as character development. It not only says what skills she possesses, but her relationship with her father. From this paragraph we know what kind of man her father was and the love they held for each other.
The examples are in full paragraphs to show how nonchalant a foreshadowing example can be implemented into other character development.
Until Next Time…
For some reason this was a difficult blog to write, so if I seem all over the place I apologize! XD I hope this has helped somewhat. Foreshadowing is difficult to organize because it is in such varying degrees affected by genre, story, characters, etc. So many things. Keeping that in mind, it doesn’t have to be a big deal either and it sometimes isn’t even necessary. I’ll leave with this: if you do use it, use it wisely.
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