Foreshadowing

August 12, 2010 at 5:30 am (Plot, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Foreshadowing is something I haven’t really written about on the blog before but it is incredibly important when it comes to writing a cohesive story. I have to thank Hart Johnson on Confessions of  a Watery Tart for reminding me why it is so important in story writing.

She actually uses a very good explanation of one of the stronger parts of the Harry Potter series in that very little just appears as it is needed. The polyjuice potion is mentioned well in advance of it ever being used and so as a reader you aren’t left thinking – this author got herself stuck and then had to magic her way out of it. Yes the mention was deliberate because you knew they were going to use it later but it still made the whole story stronger. And it was the same with many other items and events within the Harry Potter series. By being prementioned and then gently reminding the reader at certain points, by the time the event or object become critical to the story it was like it was there all along and it doesn’t feel like a quick fix.

The best way to explain why foreshadowing is important is probably to look at what happens without it. The scenario is where your hero is backed up against a wall with thirty villains closing in, all armed to the teeth with more weapons than I could name, there is a bomb about to explode, a damsel in distress hanging from a helicopter two blocks away screaming for assistance and a tidal wave is closing in. Okay, I erred on the side of melodrama when writing that scenario.

Suddenly your hero…

Anything you end this sentence with is going to sound lame unless it was previously set up. This situation is clearly impossible. There is no way your hero can get out of it and save the victim, and disarm the bomb and stop the tidal wave. Unless they are superman which leads us to the question of how did he get into this situation in the first place.

Are you suddenly going to whip out a magic make everything offensive go away potion?

However, if you had thought about this scenario and gone back earlier in your story and tweaked a few things it is quite likely that the hero’s side kick is currently trying to disarm the bomb, and sweating profusely while doing it, and the hero is in point of fact simply keeping the villains busy. But he’s doing it by projecting a hologram (using technology that was of course demonstrated far earlier in the story) and he is actually cutting the victim off the helicopter. What you’re going to do about the tidal wave is anyone’s guess unless the hero is planning to use the bomb, retrieved by the side kick, to somehow interrupt it (which seems pretty unlikely to me).

Foreshadowing: possibly making the impossible slightly more plausible.

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16 Comments

  1. Geoffrey Stokker said,

    I believe Foreshadowing is more commonly known as Chekov’s Gun. Although Chekov’s gun might be a derivative of foreshadowing. It basically says that if you show a gun on the mantlepiece at the beginning of the story, the reader will expect the gun to be used by the end.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I suppose it depends on where you learn. Chekov’s Gun is not exactly common language and unless you’ve actually studied writing, odds are ithe term isn’t going to be familiar.

  2. Alex Willging said,

    “Are you suddenly going to whip out a magic make everything offensive go away potion?”

    But suppose you’re got a story where some wizard is experimenting with creating said potion early on and gives it to the hero for precisely this purpose at the end? Because then the answer might be a resounding “Yes.”

    I love good foreshadowing. Nice post, Cassandra!

  3. Agatha82 said,

    I have subconsciously done a bit of foreshadowing in my own story, just by instinct, now that you mention it, it’s really got me thinking about it. I better make sure whatever I “set up” is actually shown later on! In other words, yeah, if I showed that gun, I better make sure it’s used later. Great post!

  4. Cruella Collett said,

    Great post! I agree that Rowling is the master here. I have often wondered if she really had all those details figured out right from the start or if she sometimes read the fine print in her own books looking for details that later could be called “clues”…

    Re: Chekov’s gun – I have recently read some books that had prominently displayed “guns” which didn’t come up again, and as a reader I was GREATLY disappointed. So I guess it is important to foreshadow only when there is a “fore” to “shadow”…

  5. AlexJ said,

    I think if foreshadowing is done right, when the moment happens, the reader is still surprised but with a knowing “A-ha!”

  6. Carol Ann Hoel said,

    Thank you for talking about this matter of foreshadowing. I used this technique in my manuscript although I didn’t know there was a name for it. While fleshing out the story, I had gone back in the pages at certain points to add small but necessary points of contact to emphasize and strengthen impact that occurs later in the story. It’s not a big thing, but just a little spark of “oh, yes, I remember…” when the reader puts it together. There is so much to learn! Thank you for sharing.

  7. Lua said,

    I love it when an author puts a little detail in chapter one that seems not so important when we’re reading but then it comes out again in chapter eight and help the hero to solve one of his problems. That, for me is good plotting. I hate it when a magic stick comes out at the end of the book to solve all the problems.

  8. amkuska said,

    I realize this post was about foreshadowing, but my instinctive response was, “WHAT does your hero do?” 😛 Come now, you can’t leave him half-escaped.

  9. Lynn Rush said,

    Great post. I like your explanation. Foreshadowing is definitely a challenge.

    Have a great day!

  10. elisajeglin said,

    The first book I ever read, in which I consciously identified foreshadowing and what it was exactly, was John Steinbeck’s story “Of Mice and Men.” There is a scene in the middle of the story where an old man takes his dying dog out and shoots it. I remembered this shocked and saddened me, but the scene set up the ending of the book, where the mc shoots his friend. Whenever I think of foreshadowing I think of this and while I do agree J.K. Rowling did an excellent job of foreshadowing, John Steinbeck is the author that stands out in my mind the most.

    And to Alex J, I believe J.K. Rowling did both. I think she had most of the major elements of her series in place by the time her first novel was published and she reread her works, allowing her to form new ideas as she went along without making them feel forced.

    Anyway, great post. Foreshadowing is a very essential element of writing, without it we might all be calling bullshit whenever we finished a book ;p

  11. Miss Rosemary said,

    I love when I reach a point in the end of the book when I make the connection between the foreshadowing and then I just HAVE to flip back to the beginning and find that passage. Then I can say. Aha! I get it. 🙂

  12. Jane Kennedy Sutton said,

    I enjoyed your fun illustration on the importance of foreshadowing. I do dislike books where the gun (wallet, dog, cat, knife, etc.) happens to be sitting on the table right next to where they are suddenly needed.

  13. Deb Salisbury said,

    Great post! Good foreshadowing makes a book so much richer.

  14. Tooty Nolan said,

    I’d not heard of of foreshadowing, but I realise that i do use it – not so much deliberately, but because I love inserting silly little asides in my comedies that later come up trumps, and take me in either new directions, or allow one of those magic potion moments. It’s a great tool.

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