Today marks the halfway point for NaNoWriMo 2021. Many writers are working on the first draft of a new manuscript. Others are revising last year’s novel and rearranging the story’s events and writing new scenes.
Foreshadowing is integral to a well-plotted story.
Those of us who have been working from an outline may have included some in the planning stage. For authors who wing it, this happens on a subconscious level, but it does happen.
But what is foreshadowing? It is the subtle warning that all is not what it seems, a few clues embedded in the first quarter of the story to subliminally alert the reader that things may not go well for the protagonist. We include small warning signs of future events, bait, if you will, to lure the reader and keep them reading.
In the first draft, we commit certain sins of craftsmanship, road signs for us to examine in the second draft:
- Clumsy foreshadowing, baldly stating what is going to happen later.
- Neglecting to foreshadow so that events arrive out of nowhere.
Recognizing those signals can be a challenge, but that is where writing craft comes into play.
When a possibility is briefly, almost offhandedly mentioned, but almost immediately overlooked or ignored by the protagonists, that is a form of foreshadowing.
Some readers will miss the suggested possibility just as the unsuspecting characters do. Other readers will guess what is going on.
If the narrative is well-written, readers will stick with it as they will want to see how it plays out.
We are subtle with foreshadowing because we want readers to feel surprised when all the pieces fall into place. We want to reward the reader with a moment when they can say, “I should have seen that coming.”
Now is an opportune time to hone our foreshadowing skills. This helps avoid using the clumsy Deus Ex Machina (pronounced: Day-us ex Mah-kee-nah) (God from the Machine) as a way 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.
- Foreshadowing also helps us avoid the opposite ungainly device, the Diabolus Ex Machina (Demon from the machine). This is the bad guy’s counterpart.
When an author suddenly realizes the evil his character faces isn’t evil enough, we may see the sudden introduction of an unexpected new event, character, ability, or weapon. The intent is to ensure things suddenly get much worse for the protagonists, but it falls flat.
As a reader, I hate it when a character suddenly gets a new skill or knowledge without explanation. When this happens, it’s usually explained away as a Chekhov’s Skill.
A casual mention early on of the characters using or training that skill will resolve the situation. Without briefly foreshadowing that ability, the reader will assume the character doesn’t have it.
This is when the narrative becomes unbelievable.
Literature and the expectations of the reader are like everything else. Tastes evolve and change over the centuries.
In genre fiction today, a prologue may not be a place for foreshadowing. This is because modern readers don’t have the patience to wade through large chunks of exposition dumped in the first pages of a novel.
I often refer to the way that Shakespeare used both exposition and foreshadowing. In his works, more significant events are foreshadowed through the smaller events that precede them.
Let’s look at Romeo and Juliet and the scene where Benvolio tries to talk Romeo out of his infatuation with Rosaline.
“Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die.”
In other words, “Bro, the minute you see a different girl, you’ll forget this one.”
Benvolio’s advice proves correct because as soon as Romeo lays eyes on Juliet, he forgets his obsession with Rosaline and is fixated on his mortal enemy’s daughter.
And again, later, 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.”
Romeo predicts that Mercutio’s death is only the beginning, that disaster looms for everyone. He feels as if he is racing toward an unknown future.
In that moment, we see that Romeo is deeply aware that he has reached a point of no return.
He will fight Tybalt to avenge Mercutio because his society requires it. Therefore, he must duel but is fully aware that killing Tybalt won’t resolve anything. Instead, the murder will only perpetuate the problem.
Romeo has seen the foreshadowing and knows he is no longer in control of his fate.
Inserting slight hints of what is to come into your narrative gives the protagonists an indication of where to go next.
It tantalizes a reader and keeps them turning the page, and that is our goal.
Credits and Attributions
Romeo and Juliet, by Frank Bernard Dicksee, 1884 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
First Folio of William Shakespeare’s Plays, 1623 by William Shakespeare, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons