Foreshadowing is part of the craft of writing, and is a useful tool a when an author is writing fiction. It is a critical trope when writing fantasy. In the first quarter of the story, you should have a few clues embedded in the narrative, something to subliminally alert the reader, little warnings signs of future events.
The key to good foreshadowing is to not spoil the surprise, yet allow the reader to say in retrospect, “I should have seen that coming.”
We insert small hints, little offhand references to future events, briefly, almost offhandedly mentioned, but almost immediately overlooked or ignored. Some readers will fail to notice the suggested possibility just as the unsuspecting characters do, and others will guess what is going on. In a well-written narrative, both kinds of readers will stick with it as they will want to see how it plays out.
We have many reasons to pursue good foreshadowing skills. They help us to avoid inadvertently employing the clumsy Deus Ex Machina (pronounced: Day-us ex Mah-kee-nah) (God from the Machine) to miraculously resolve an issue. A Deus Ex Machina occurs when, toward the end of the narrative, an author inserts a new event, character, ability, or otherwise resolves a seemingly insoluble problem in a sudden, unexpected way.
Then, there is the opposite ungainly literary device: the Diabolus Ex Machina (Demon from the machine). This is the bad guy’s counterpart to the Deus Ex Machina. In this instance, the author suddenly realizes the evil his character faces isn’t evil enough and wham! We see the sudden introduction of an unexpected new event, character, ability, or object designed to ensure things suddenly get much worse for the protagonists.
We have to avoid cases where a character suddenly gets a new skill or knowledge without explanation. In screenplays and TV shows, when a character suddenly gets a new skill without explanation, it’s usually explained away as a Chekhov’s Skill.
In a book, you need to mention prior examples of the characters using, or having received training in that skill. If you don’t briefly foreshadow it, the character doesn’t have it. If the reader realizes the character never possessed that skill before, it becomes unbelievable.
How has literature and the expectations of the reader changed over the centuries? Nowadays, in genre fiction especially, a prologue may or may not be a place for foreshadowing, as modern readers don’t have the patience to wade through large chunks of exposition dumped in the first pages of a novel.
Consider William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a play that is heavy with both exposition and foreshadowing. According to Philip Weller, Professor of English at Eastern Washington University, on his site, http://www.shakespeare-navigators.com:
“Technically, the Prologue (of Romeo and Juliet) is not foreshadowing. Foreshadowing hints at what will happen later, but in the Prologue, the Chorus doesn’t hint — he tells. The second quatrain of the Chorus’ sonnet sums up the plot of the play:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife (Prologue 5-8)
“The next quatrain repeats the same message, and because this message is hammered home early, the later foreshadowings in the play are ominously recognizable.” (end quoted text.)
There is a difference between foreshadowing and telling. How does Shakespeare foreshadow the larger events? Larger events may be foreshadowed through the smaller events that precede them. Again, we will examine Romeo and Juliet. Early in the first act, when Benvolio is trying to talk Romeo out of his infatuation for Rosaline, he tells him,
“Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die.”
As we see later, Benvolio’s advice is correct because as soon as Romeo lays eyes on Juliet, his obsession with Rosaline disappears. More foreshadowing occurs later, in the third act, when Benvolio brings the news that Mercutio is dead. Romeo says,
“This day’s black fate on more days doth depend;
This but begins the woe, others must end.”
Again, Philip Weller explains,
“It’s as if Romeo is envisioning the death of Mercutio as a dark thunderhead, racing across the sky above him and into the unknown future. Romeo knows he has reached a point of no return; he will fight Tybalt to avenge Mercutio, but he knows that won’t be the end of anything. Then, after he has fought and killed Tybalt, cries out, “O, I am fortune’s fool!” (3.1.136). Here “fool” means “plaything” or “dupe.” Romeo knows he is no longer in control of his fate. (end quoted text.)
William Shakespeare understood the difference between foreshadowing and telling the story, and he made use of both techniques to good advantage.
Modern authors writing genre fiction must be gentler with their foreshadowing than Shakespeare was required to be. Foreshadowing should be woven into the narrative in such a way that the story flows smoothly, allowing the reader to remain immersed, but tantalizing them with hints that will keep them reading.
Smoothness is the key word here. I’ve seen manuscripts that seem schizophrenic as if they were “Frankensteined” together. The author begins by telling one story, and somewhere around the middle, we find ourselves reading a completely different novel as if it were two manuscripts inexpertly sewn together and reworked into one. Foreshadowing, if there was any, seemed like a thread to nowhere.
Clumsy foreshadowing, or neglecting to foreshadow are things we do when laying down the first, rough draft, of our story. These flaws are a fundamental part of the creative process and are why we never publish a rough draft. Let it rest for several weeks and work on something else, then come back to it. In the second draft we check for, and iron out, these kinds of issues. During the second draft, if you have used subtle foreshadowing in advance of the events (usually in the first quarter of the story arc, before the first plot-point) the novel really begins to take shape.
Weller, Philip. Romeo and Juliet Navigator.
Shakespeare Navigators, n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Philip Weller.
Hamlet Navigator. Shakespeare Navigators, n.d.
Web. 20 Sept. 2016. <http://shakespearenavigators.com/romeo/index.html>