Good foreshadowing is crucial. Suppose you have been working from an outline. In that case, you should have a few clues embedded in the first quarter of the story to subliminally alert the reader that things are not what they seem. These are little warning signs of future events.
For those who wing it, this happens on a subconscious level, but it does happen. Clumsy foreshadowing or neglecting to foreshadow are things we do when laying down our story’s first draft.
Recognizing those signals can be a challenge unless you have a plan.
When a possibility is briefly, almost offhandedly mentioned, but almost immediately overlooked or ignored by the protagonists, that is foreshadowing.
Some readers will miss the suggested possibility just as the unsuspecting characters do. Other readers will guess what is going on.
We subtly insert small hints, little offhand references to future events. If the narrative is well-written, readers will stick with it as they will want to see how it plays out.
The most crucial aspect of foreshadowing is the surprise when all the pieces fall into place. This is the moment when the reader says, “I should have seen that coming.”
We have many reasons to pursue good foreshadowing skills. In my opinion, the most important is that it 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 to the Deus Ex Machina.
That occurs when the author suddenly realizes the evil his character faces isn’t evil enough. We see the sudden introduction of an unexplained new event, character, ability, or object designed to ensure things suddenly get much worse for the protagonists.
As a reader, I hate it when a character suddenly develops a new skill or knowledge without explanation. When this happens, it’s usually explained away as a Chekhov’s Skill.
You need to mention previous examples of the characters using or training that skill. 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. They evolve and change over the centuries.
In genre fiction today, a prologue may or 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.
Shakespeare used both exposition and foreshadowing. Larger events may be foreshadowed through the smaller events that precede them.
Let’s look at Romeo and Juliet and the scene where Benvolio is trying to talk Romeo out of his infatuation for Rosaline.
“Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die.”
In other words, “The minute you see a different girl, you’ll forget this one, Bro.”
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 is predicting that Mercutio’s death is a disaster for everyone and 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 small 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.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg&oldid=431079125 (accessed November 17, 2020).
Painting: Death on a Pale Horse, Commissioned from Blake and acquired by Thomas Butts c. 1800 (via Wikimedia Commons)