>Chasing fore-shadows…

>If I was going to tell you something vital/ important / unpleasant/ shocking … You’re pregnant/ you have AIDS/ your husband is having an affair with bi-sexual crossdressing Kangaroo from New York… I’d probably prepare the ground slightly. “Hi Fred, you’re pregnant…” will probably fail to achieve breaking the momentous news in a beliveable fashion. To do that you have prime Fred about the possibility of some people being XXY and and having functional genetalia of sex they may think they don’t belong to etc. It’s going to take a while, and some careful explanation to get Fred to believe you (a thing which is particularly important in fiction, where, after all, it is FICTION, and you are still trying to suspend disbelief.)

This requires foreshadowing. Or if you prefer, priming the reader. Plausibility and that suspension of disbelief require that the reader is brought into the frame, and has sufficient hints (3 is the gospel, but the truth is, more is better than less, especially if you are subtly building up to horrific revelations… like the husband having an affair with… someone from New York ;-).

All storytellers foreshadow instinctively to some extent. Some of us, have a real natural flair for it. Most of us don’t understand it, and do it without thinking. To readers it is all but invisible, until it isn’t there. It’s more than merely the mention of the shotgun on the mantlepiece, the lead character saying he likes skeet-shooting, and picking up a roll of Cherry Lifesavers to find that actually they’re a shotgun cartrige. If you slipped these into your story – the denoument when the lead character siezes the shotgun and blows his head off would at least seem plausible. Otherwise… sorry, but it’s not even a story. And to do it well requires SO much more.

I think it is easiest to explain in movie terms. When the background music goes all slushy and the lighting a little soft, you know that this is a romantic scene coming and the kissy bit is as inevitable as sunrise or taxation. When the music goes all eeky-squeeky and the scenes are largely black-and-little bits of light showing things that could be nasty… you know your better half will have you on their lap, and not looking any moment, because someone is going to die (or nearly die). And that happens BEFORE the kissy bit or the murder. It doesn’t spoil either. BUT if you have the kissy bit without the foreshadowing it feels bare and un-natural. If you have the kissy bit with axe-murderer music… it’s a disaster. So foreshadowing is partially about managing expectations, preparing the ground for events. Priming the reader for something they don’t necessarily think they expect, but do. If it is done well it is near invisible.

so for example:

The boss at a small company that kept dropping hints it was 60th coming up… and on the day no-one said anything. So he worked, getting more down in the mouth all day. At last his secretary – at 5 to 5 in the afternoon – says ‘what’s wrong?’
He tells her how un-noticed he is by his staff, and it’s his birthday and he’d thought… She’s a pretty young lass and he’s a plump shy old bloke… and she says, “that’s terrible, but it’s five o’clock, come and at least have celebratory drink with me.”
So they go to a wine bar and one drink turns to two, but she keeps looking at her watch. He’s flattered by the notice but thinks, well, a pretty young thing has probably got a date or something.

So after the second glass she looks at her watch again and says: “well, why don’t you come back to my place. I’ve got some decent wine there.”

They take a taxi and she lets him into her lounge and sits him down in the best comfy chair, pours him a glass of wine… and says “I think have a little present for you after all. I’ll be back now.” And she walks out and turns the lights out.

The trouble is by the time she walks back in and throws on the lights, with the entire office staff, all yelling “Happy Birthday!”…

He is only wearing his socks.

(and that was foreshadowing by example (if you look carefully you’ll realise I was ‘priming’ you, and example of how nasty a surprise we REALLY don’t expect can be. :-))

without foreshadowing

Nobody in the office noticed the boss’s birthday, so he told his secretary, and she took out to a winebar for a couple of glasses of wine, and then to her place. She gave him a glass of wine, sat him down turned the lights off and said she had a little birthday pressie for him after all,

The trouble is by the time she walks back in and throws on the lights, with the entire office staff, all yelling “Happy Birthday!”…
and he was only wearing his socks.


the set-up here included details like their ages, appearance and his shyness, and the hints he was dropping, and her watch watching…

If a scene is well foreshadowed, even if you DIDN’T actually expect the twist, it does not feel unnatural. If a scene is not foreshadowed it simply doesn’t.

So: give me some foreshadowing, gentlefolk.
I expect it.


  1. >The best bit of foreshadowing I've seen recently was from a slightly different form of print media. It was unique in that it also set up a gag.I'll go ahead and reveal my nerdiness I guess. This foreshadowing was in the comic Batman Incorporated #1, and it plays off of something that many of us in the US find rather odd about Japan. All that stuff they do with tentacles. The set up has Catwoman seeing a poster for a tentacle hentai. Later she makes a remark about not wanting the mission she is on with Batman to involve water. So, of course the very last page of the book shows Catwoman underwater fighting a giant octopus. Zaney as can be. Quite fun too. 🙂

  2. >Deleted the last comment because it was a bit obscure in places.Foreshadowing — My problem is that I write the story, then I think the foreshadowing is too obvious and tone it back.I do this because a lot of movies and books are like painting by numbers. I watched the first ten minutes of an action thriller with my husband then wandered off. Later I said to my husband, was he set up by his boss? Sure enough. Sigh.So that's why I take the foreshadowing back and try to throw in a few red herrings. Then I worry that they are too obviously red herrings.

  3. >Foreshadowing can be tricky. I would rather too subtle I missed it(cause I can always go back and slap myself later) rather than too ham-fisted.A much revered author in one of her latest books was a bit heavy on the foreshadowing and somewhat ruined the story for me, but Terry Pratchett in "I Shall Wear Midnight", with one sentence set opened up the possibility(if not the promise) of a new book that has me desperate in anticipation.

  4. >I love it when an author totally blindsides me. Subtle foreshadowing makes it even better.The best recent example I can think of was from Nick Harkaway in his book The Gone Away World. Not only was the premise of the novel really exciting, but the blindside was utterly consistent and believable.

  5. >Hey, Dave. Thank God he was wearing his socks – I thought we were in for nudity for second there:) Had actually heard that one before, so saw it coming.I find foreshadowing a tough balance between giving enough but not too much – particularly when you have a mixed audience.

  6. >When it comes down to it, foreshadowing is CYA on the part of the writer. After all, even though readers like surprises, readers don't like to be surprised. A little bit of foreshadowing can be all that stands between the reader lauding your brilliance, or cursing your name when you hit them with the Whammy.Without foreshadowing: "What the hell was he thinking? Moron!"With foreshadowing: "What the hell was he… Oh! So that's what the conversation with the orc proctologist in Chapter 17 was about. Brilliant!"

Comments are closed.