The Shadows Of What’s To Come

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.

52 Comments

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52 responses to “The Shadows Of What’s To Come

  1. How about in mysteries? Are clues the same as foreshadowing? Writers like to bury clues, but foreshadowing seems like it should be more obvious.

    • clues are often foreshadowing, yes, and yes and no. Foreshadowing in mysteries should still not be in your face.

    • Clues are items that lead to the reader deducing the identity of the perpetrator of the crime. There should be enough false clues to make the detection of the criminal less than straight forward, but at the same time should be such that when the villain is revealed, the reader should both be astounded and immediately see how all the clues led in that direction.

      Foreshadowing is something different. Foreshadowing hints that certain events are possible. In the first few minutes of Finding Nemo, as Marlin swims with Nemo to class, several events are foreshadowed in the conversation. Events in a mystery have to be foreshadowed as well.

      Let’s say that a mystery requires a car to break down, and repaired by an unassuming elderly woman. For it to just happen, it looks like the author wrote himself into a corner and the only way out was highly improbable. But what if as a toss-off earlier in the novel, we see this unassuming elderly woman listening to an old episode of Car Talk, and her daughter explaining that her mum worked in a motor pool with the ATS in WWII, and enjoyed tinkering with automobiles. Now when the old lady says “Pop the bonnet and let me have a look,” it doesn’t seem out of the blue.

      That’s foreshadowing.

    • I just bought several Kay Hooper mysteries (great popcorn), and without being spoiler-y, I can list how she did it in one of them. The victims were all from one group of people, indicating that it was someone who had also been a part of that group; she had an intercut scene with the murderer and a victim saying, “But you’re dead!”; and she had the investigators listing off several members of that group who had died in potentially questionable circumstances. (It’s paranormal mystery; the concept of deathbed possession id viable in that universe.)

      Or you can always do it the Neil Gaiman serialized method: when he was writing for Sandman, he’d sometimes drop a detailed description of a panel. When he wrote about this, he gave the example of a chest full of items, and had described a number of them to the artist. He had no idea what most of them referred to, but when he needed a connection back, he could go and see if any of those items seemed a good fit. Then he could use it and have everyone exclaiming over his foreshadowing.

      • Very timely for me. I’ve just finished my first draft, and what, in particular, I need to foreshadow (and how much) is definitely going to be a consideration.

        (I didn’t realize until I started thinking about this how much it had all gotten away with me. It’s supposed to be boy and girl against an evil cult. How did I get this twenty-Xanatos-pile-up?)

        • Signs of a cult: It centers around a living charismatic figure, its wealth does not benefit its members or society (just the upper echelon), and it cuts off its members from outside social contact. Basically, a cult is to religion as an abusive relationship is to a healthy one. So if you can have characters involved with the cult withdrawing from contact, have their finances obviously take a sharp downturn, or talk about the charisma of the central figure, that would be good hints to drop.

          • I think I’ve got that it’s a cult all right–we’ve got blood magic and human sacrifice before the first chapter. Hinting at who the real power is, though… painting stress fractures in the organization before everyone turns on him… making a heel-face turn plausible for a certain antagonist…

            Now that I’ve written it all like that, I’m relying heavily on cliches, so that helps–cliches can work as shorthand, I suspect. Just tilting toward the right ones without just putting it all on the table… yeah.

      • Apologies, the above was meant as a general reply. @_@

      • Mary

        Explaining a bunch of things is one way to help hide that foreshadowing is foreshadowing, except to hindsight.

        Another good one is to prove an early plot purpose to something that will come back with more wallop later.

  2. RES

    I’m not saying Hitchcock said it best, but Hitchcock said it best.

    “There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

    We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

    In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

    The solution to our unsuspecting barely clad lady is obvious: the attacker (excuse me, “attacker”) is role-playing a common sexual fantasy in which he subdues her, binds her in provocative fashion and proceeds to spend several hours reading Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to [her].

    ‘Course, a [gal]’ll listen to anything if [s]he thinks it’s foreplay.

    • The solution to our unsuspecting barely clad lady is obvious: the attacker (excuse me, “attacker”) is role-playing a common sexual fantasy in which he subdues her, binds her in provocative fashion and proceeds to spend several hours reading Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to [her].

      ‘Course, a [gal]’ll listen to anything if [s]he thinks it’s foreplay.

      *giggling into her pre-bedtime warm drink, unable to put mug down*

  3. Isn’t it maddening when you kill yourself trying not to do something and then people (especially people in authority) tell you you’re perpetrating that very thing? Grrrrr. Thank heaven Dave stepped in and told you what the problem really was.

    You’ve got a point about foreshadowing the big twist in more than one place. If it’s just a single throw-off line buried in Chapter 4, the reader may miss it or forget all about it by the time the dreck hits the ventilator in Chapter 31.

  4. paladin3001

    I can see the rule of three times for novels, is it the same for shorter stories? Or is the rule of suspense/surprise workable in that?
    Aside from that I can see the need for foreshadowing and I think I need a bit more work on that.

  5. Hrm. I wonder if there’s an analog here in RPG adventure creation. RPGing isn’t writing – you need enough structure for the characters to grasp but not so much that it’s confining – which means a tightly-written/scripted plot may be as unwelcome as “here’s your entire world, devoid of context and backstory. Go adventure.” Still, the three clues methodology might be a nice one to follow when scattering adventure seeds about. Here’s a rumor heard in a bar (the Mad Wizard really did create a labyrinth with no entrance). Here’s an action clue (here’s a party of disparate folks riding out of the North gate . . . “Why, don’t they look fancy,” says the farmer. “Yeah, but we’ll never see them again. Shame. They were good customers.” says the merchant). Here’s a physical clue. (“The Duchess of Plotline is wearing a very unusual necklace. Unusual polished stones – not gems – that are said to have been taken from a subterranean dwelling long ago by her (late) husband.” “What happened to him?” “No one knows. He rode back out again after he gave it to her, and has never been seen again. That was two years ago.”)

    With enough of those scattered about, the likelihood that the players will pick up on at least one of them is high, and their reinforcing nature rewards those that take notes.

    Hmm. Good post.

  6. Mary

    But it is supposed to be a surprise.

    The thing is, it’s a surprise only until you look back and see how inevitable it was.

    • Exactly. One of the easiest of my books to install foreshadowing in was one that I had nearly finished … and then one evening, I was thinking how I much I was not looking forward to writing the scene where the character died. OK, he was always doomed – but I just wasn’t keen on writing out the painful details. So I thought – have him die offstage, as it were … and then I came up with a brilliant reason for having it work out that way.

      So I had to go back through the entire thing, and sprinkle in little bits, hints and events which would make that last-minute plot twist inevitable and heartbreaking. It was more like applying touch-up bits, rather than building it in from the beginning.

  7. Hear hear! In the short fiction I review I do see stories in professional magazines which either fail to foreshadow or else fail to have much of a plot at all, and it’s always annoying. I usually attribute it to one of two things:

    1) The author is famous. Or at least well-enough known that his/her name on the cover is helpful to the magazine. The narration and dialogue for these is generally pitch-perfect, so they’re pleasant enough to read if they’re not too long. (I should add that famous authors are still a better bet overall; there’s a reason why they’re famous.)

    2) The setting is breathtaking. Yeah, the protagonist had no real goals and was pretty helpless, but the story really made you feel like you were on a space station that was spinning out of control. (I’m making the scenario up.)

    Some reviewers (not me) will occasionally recommend a story of type 2. I guess it’s really a matter of taste, but it’s certainly not something to try to do on purpose.

  8. TRX

    Then there’s the other problem, exemplified by the book I finished last night: good strong plot, but the author spends tedious amounts of time going into great detail on things that have no relevance to the plot and only tangential relevance to the story.

    As a reader, that comes across as fluff. And fluff is boring.

    • Perhaps, but the refinishing mysteries sell very well, and I’m not going to change 😉

      • TRX

        I’d expect, or at least be unsurprised by, furniture refinishing taking place in a furniture refinishing series. But not twenty pages of begats covering the geneology of every character, or lengthy descriptions of places they only pass through incidentally, or long side-stories that don’t really have anything to do with the main story. *Those* are fluff.

        • Luke

          I love fluff.
          As long as it doesn’t overwhelm the story.

          Take a classic example: Bilbo is working on a song, and Gandalf suggests it would be improved by adding an elf we’d never heard of, who wore a jewel on his brow.
          Later, Elrond reacts to this inclusion.
          Bilbo was as confused as we were by what it all meant, but it was clear that it meant something, and something important at that.
          It was a small inclusion that did a great deal to give the setting a sense of depth. And Tolkien’s writings are practically littered with such “throw-away” fluff.
          Some people hate his stories for this. Some of us love them, possibly to an unhealthy degree. (I’ve gotten better. I haven’t even argued in an internet forum that Balors did not have wings for YEARS now.)

          But… Back to the topic. The trick is (as far as I can tell) to drop in the fluff, and then walk away.
          Not everything needs to be explained.
          Drop it in as an aside, and then be done with it.

      • Albert

        We can has Book 4?

  9. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Does the following work anymore or does it depend on the writer’s skill.

    “It was just a simple quest but I should have known better.”

    Or

    “This is a simple little quest. I wonder what can go wrong.”

  10. NO ONE TURNS EVIL WITHOUT SIGNALLING IT.

    A good number of years ago there was a movie “Falling Down” staring Michael Douglas. The premise that was sold in the previews was an “ordinary man” who was pushed beyond the limit by ordinary annoyances and snapped, going on a rampage.

    The actual movie was something different. We find out that one of the annoyances was he was estranged from his wife and child. The reason he was estranged was because his wife had left him because of tendencies toward violence. (Oh, and he was one of those right winger defense contractor types too, who Hollywood just knows are all powder kegs just waiting to go off.)

    So even Hollywood realized they couldn’t really make “ordinary person with no history or problems suddenly ‘snapping'” a plausible story.

    • Buffy the Vampire Slayer did this particularly well. In the first season, you’re introduced to the mild-mannered librarian Giles. Aside from his arcane knowledge, you have no reason to suspect he’s anything more than a somewhat retiring type. And then in the second season, he finds out that someone he used to know has created havoc in his town—and he physically smashes that guy’s head into things in order to get the answers he needs. While polishing his glasses in between bouts of precisely targeted violence. That’s the first big hint about his past, and by the time it comes out that he was a juvenile delinquent, it’s not surprising in the least. He leashed his anger, but it still came out.

  11. I have three e-books I bought on one of those 99 cent sales Bezos’ place has. Read the first few chapters and thought, “Not great writing, but a decent story line, and not ‘bad’ writing, so okay”, one book in and I am pretty absorbed … then in the second book, I got to MC in conflict with opposite sex character and suddenly they’re doing the horizontal boogie out of no where.
    Book, wall, some assembly required.
    I cannot get past the poorly added sex scene to finish that second book. Think there is a fourth but not even for free because of this flaw. Arguing one second, nekkid the next worked better in Cheers or some other rom/com setting than this and they, you know, worked up to it a lot better (as crappily done as they were.) I think the author might have used a parody Cliff Notes version of Taming of the Shrew or something as plot model.

    • Or even the overly graphic sex scene shoe-horned into an otherwise good story, even if it is believable that the characters would be a couple. I really don’t need all of the wet and sticky details laid out. I’ve stopped reading a couple of series after one book because of that.

    • I wrote an alien sex scene that isn’t TOO explicit, but also terrifying on an intellectual level, followed by a brief fight and then things get odd at the end (Or maybe hot if you’re a serious perv.)

  12. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I’m reminded of something I was reading late last night. The characters have been being involved in all sorts of bizarre incidents due to plotters in the background, and are getting paranoid. Their speculations serve as fairly heavy handed foreshadowing.

  13. Foreshadowing doesn’t always have to be explicit to everyone, though that can help. J.K. Rowling was hinting all over the place to anyone who understood Latin, for example. Or the language of plants. (Though I was annoyed as heck about “Sorcerer’s Stone” until I found out that was the idiot American publishing house who thought no Americans would get “Philosopher’s Stone.”)

    I’m a really weird person, though. I’m currently figuring out how to do geological foreshadowing. Blame my upbringing.

  14. Dan Z

    Great post! Working foreshadowing into my stories is one of my favorite parts writing; particularly when the story is narrated in the first person. When I want to study how other authors make use of it I’ll read their books twice: the first time just to enjoy the story and the second time, immediately after I finish the first read through, I’ll read the story at a much slower pace in order to study the “mechanics” of the story and find all the little bits of foreshadowing I might have missed the first time through.

    The challenge I enjoy with a first person narrator is working in the foreshadowing in such a way that the narrator can accurately report on events or details, but still misinterpret them in a way that seems reasonable. So long as it’s a reasonable misinterpretation hopefully the narrator won’t be judged a fool when he is surprised to discover he was wrong – ideally the readers will have sympathy for the poor fellow.

    I lose all respect, though, for a narrator or character who is stupidly oblivious to clear signs of impending doom. Unless the story is meant to be humorous, in which case it might be considered humorous foreshadowing, perhaps?

  15. Inadvertent foreshadowing of an event that never happens is irritating as well. Mention that the city was built on the side of a dormant but not extinct volcano often enough and one expects the dratted thing to erupt.

    • Mary

      Very annoying when you throw something in as local color, and it THEN announces that it’s significant later and you have to figure out HOW.

      • That sounds like a lot of my book, actually. I threw in a bunch of stuff early on that turned out to be critical later. Which… I don’t really mind, actually, but it wasn’t expected.

        • Mary

          Mine doesn’t turn out to be crucial. It announces it’s crucial and then smugly refuses to tell me why.

    • Yeah, a fair amount of editing will be pulling out Chekhov’s Guns as well as put them in. @_@ I think that Gaiman’s technique, above, just won’t work for me–my “I could put something useful here!” sense just seems to be off.

    • Julie Pascal

      Or my oft repeated story of the romance writer who was frustrated by a contest critique that she had the wrong hero. Contests are usually the first chapter or two, and what she had done was mention this not-the-hero’s curly hair and eye color.

      Particularly with romances I get very salty when incorrect signals are given. Or not enough signals that the romance will not work in the end.

  16. Draven

    *turns evil*

    SURPRISE!

    well
    wait
    i guess not, really.