When I was a young writer, verdant as spring lettuce, writing my novels on the hope of publication, and sending them forth to publishers who’d never heard of me, my most common rejection was that “your novel just meanders and has no plot.”
This puzzled the living heck out of me. In those days I was a plotter, because I was insecure. Not only did I outline and diagram ahead of time, but I ruthlessly (too ruthlessly) trimmed everything that didn’t advance the plot or reinforce the theme or whatever.
In fact to this day, as a reader, loose and meandering plotting (and my bar for that is MUCH lower than the average reader’s) disturbs me, and unless I trust the writer for other reasons, will get me to stop reading. I have to discern “the thread” before I can find pleasure in a book.
Being told I had no plot was one of those things. It would be like you leaving home in the morning and everyone telling you that you were purple. After a while you decide you can’t see your own color, and I decided I knew nothing about plotting and started stealing structure/plot from other books. (No, this is not plagiarism. It is at worst stupid.)
It took me years — and six novels out — before I was whining to Dave Freer about how I couldn’t plot for beans, and couldn’t seem to learn it, since I couldn’t SEE what I was missing, when he said “Your plots and structure are fine, but you have to learn to foreshadow, woman.
He then recommended I read Georgette Heyer to learn techniques and that worked somewhat, but mostly what worked was my being aware of the need to give the reader advance warning WITHOUT spoiling the surprise.
That was part of the problem, see. I thought every new plot development had to be a SURPRISE! — I don’t know where I got the idea, frankly — and the more surprise the better. So I must not give away what was coming. Not even by hints.
It’s no coincidence that my first novels that sold were Shakespearean, because being in Shakespeare mode, I felt a need for a Greek Choir of sorts, and for imitating his techniques, and the man foreshadowed. Heavily, actually, given that he was working on a dimly-lit (by our reckoning) stage, for people in a crowded noisy space, who might miss the first hint, or three.
So, first to start with: what is foreshadowing?
Exactly what it sounds like. It is things to come casting a shadow on the present. Think of it as the choir in classical plays, moaning prophecies of tragedy to come.
Most of the time nowadays, unless we’re writing something really peculiar, we can’t do that. A lot of writers, though, use feelings, premonitions, dreams are very popular, as are someone shaking his head and saying “that boy is going to come to a bad end.” type of things. Think of Owen Pitt’s confusing dreams in Monster Hunter International. Actually hold on to that. We’ll revisit it.
Second: why do you need foreshadowing? Aren’t SURPRISES! more enjoyable?
Well, no. This must be a prevalent illusion, because ALMOST every single contest I judge, the good king “goes mad” and becomes evil.
First of all, can we talk cliche, guys? And one profoundly depressing one, what I call “Brother, nobody is clean.” Second no. At that point you lost me, particularly when the good king is the main character or the love interest.
Let’s ignore the cliche part for a moment and see how this could be solved with foreshadowing: NO ONE TURNS EVIL WITHOUT SIGNALLING IT. It might be that they go so far in the pursuit of good they blur moral lines. It could be they have a sadistic streak. It could be a dozen things, but if you show us that first, we’ll be prepped and won’t throw the book against a wall, when you drop an elephant from the ceiling on us.
Also, foreshadowing adds to the tension that keeps us reading forward to find out how things resolve. For instance, if you have dropped hints that the love interest might be evil, I worry for the main character and will read just to find out if he/she is okay. You can use this, btw, when the love interest ISN’T evil. I used it to good effect in Darkship Thieves.
The best image for foreshadowing is this:
Imagine you’re writing about a woman coming home from work, undressing, putting on an evening dress, doing her makeup. Suddenly, a killer jumps out of the closet and stabs her.
Thrilling stuff, right?
Oh, hell no. Most of your male readers and some females or all of them depending on how you did it, wondered off long before the killer jumps out. Those who didn’t will probably leave after that, because the effect is: boring routine, boring routine, boring routine: SURPRISE!
Unless the surprise was foreshadowed in some way (i.e. you know someone is out to get her) it’s just a “Oh, for heaven’s sake, why doesn’t this guy have a plot? He’s just throwing random things in.”
Now, same situation, but you open the book with this guy who has killed before, and likes blonds of a certain type. He sees your character out at lunch, finds out where she lives (could be anything including stealing her driver’s license) and takes his lockpick out.
Then when your character is shaving her legs and primping, you suspect there’s a guy in the closet, waiting to jump. And you are biting your nails in anxiety.
For a thriller, you might actually intercut with shots of him in the closet, watching her. That raises the tension more, but it’s not suitable to ALL books.
So, what if you’re in first person? This woman clearly didn’t notice it, or she wouldn’t go to her apartment and be shaving her legs and stuff.
Right. But her workmates might make a joke about this guy who likes girls who look just like her, apparently. This is forgotten, because Big Boss comes in with an issue. Then at lunch, she notices a guy looking weirdly at her, but when she looks at him, he looks away, and he looks so normal, so it’s probably just one of those things.
When she gets home, there’s a scratch on her door lock. Was it there before? How many of us examine our door locks?
House looks okay. Nothing disturbed. Or maybe there’s a coffee cup on the counter. Did she leave it there on the way out?
You get the point. Usually the rule is to give three hints, because your readers can miss two very easily.
The knife out of closet should still be a surprise, mind, but one that connects with subconscious expectation of SOMETHING not right.
A way to do that is to drown the hints in other stuff, like other problems the character is having, (Big Boss) or to make them vague (guy in luncheon place.) In this Owen Pitt’s dreams were perfect, because they were just vague and suspicious enough that the main character had no very clear idea what to expect. But the reader KNEW to expect something.
Take your good king that turns evil: his mother, the dowager could tell visitors when he was little he once strangled a puppy in a rage, but he’s turned out a very good king, etc.
Once you have command of this, you can use it in reverse. Your MC can hate the character on sight and yet you get hints he’s very nice. He saves a puppy from drowning, pays off a friend’s debts, that sort of thing.
And this is not just for mystery. Any big developments in your story should be foreshadowed at least three times in different ways.
Are you writing an hidden prince? Talk about how he was taller/better built than his family of woodcutters. Talk about how he’s a blond and everyone in the village is dark haired. Drop casually in that he was born when the whole country was searching for the little prince who was kidnapped from his crib when his parents were killed.
Okay, that should be enough to go on with. Now go do it.