From Writers Helping Writers: “No, Don’t Tell Me”: How & When Should We Use Foreshadowing?

I recently saw an author on Quora say, basically, Yuck, foreshadowing, quit giving away what’s coming next. I think this author just has no clue what foreshadowing is all about and why it’s important. That, or maybe he has his own unique definition of foreshadowing.

Now I’m curious about whether this linked post will agree with me about why and when foreshadowing is important.

Also, I’m chuckling because when Craig read Tasmakat, he put in a comment at one point, something like, “Good morning, Mr Chekov, just leave that gun anywhere.” I’m sure you recognize the reference “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep” is one version of this famous advice about foreshadowing.

I won’t even say that foreshadowing should never be that obvious, because sometimes it’s fine. The reader gets to feel alert and perspicacious — there’s a good word, don’t you think? –anyway, Look, says the reader, I bet we see [this plot element] reappear at some important moment! There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, even though you mostly do want the reader drawn into the story too far too make conscious notes about things like a loaded gun that someone has carried on stage. At this point, the metaphysics of the Tuyo world are sufficiently clear to the reader that the astute reader is just going to notice certain things, and that’s fine. Many other things can’t be noticed until the moment of truth.

Okay, I think I would basically say:

Foreshadowing is crucial to prevent a deus ex feel to plot twists, especially solutions to problems. It is absolutely crucial to have worldbuilding elements such as the fengol cold appear early in the story if those elements are going to be important in the action climax. Just having a reference to weird weather is not adequate. That kind of weather has to be shown, plus how it fits into the world, plus how the Ugaro think about it.

Ideally, however, when some important worldbuilding element is displayed early in the story, the reader doesn’t catch that it’s going to be important later. Or else the reader does catch that, but nevertheless doesn’t see the moment coming. Ideally, that element will later be unexpectedly, in a way or a situation that is unanticipated, but that in retrospect the reader sees makes perfect sense. That’s what you’re aiming for with this kind of foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is often a lot more subtle than that. In the leadup to that duel close to the end of Tarashana, I had to have references to the sky, to clouds, to sunlight. That was absolutely essential, but it just looks like scenery until the moment it suddenly becomes important. This is really the same kind of thing as the above point. In this case, references to the sky and the environment were just as necessary to avoid a deus ex feel and also to show that the ending of that duel didn’t depend on pure luck.

I think this is the primary, maybe the exclusive? use of foreshadowing — to set up plot twists and avoid a feeling of heavy-handed authorial fiat when something unexpected happens at the last minute.

Let’s see what the linked post has to say about that.

While most aspects of writing contribute to readers’ sense of whether our writing is “strong,” foreshadowing helps create readers’ sense of whether we and/or our story have a plan, whether we’re going to take them on a worthwhile journey. In other words, foreshadowing can help create the sense that every element of the story has a purpose, that it’s all leading to a purposeful destination.

Hints of future story elements—even ones that just register with readers subconsciously—make story events fit into a sense of a bigger picture. While unexpected twists can make a story fun and avoid the feeling of being too predictable, foreshadowing can help a story hit the sweet spot of feeling inevitable-yet-surprising.

This is actually a point that suggests that allowing the reader to feel alert and perspicacious is one of the main goals of foreshadowing. It’s also another way of saying that foreshadowing avoids a deus ex feel. That’s the “inevitable” part of “inevitable yet surprising.” I agree that “inevitable yet surprising” is exactly what the author is going for.

Oh, this post is doing something I didn’t think of at all: it’s distinguishing between direct and indirect foreshadowing, like this:

Examples of Direct Foreshadowing — Direct foreshadowing tells readers the what, but readers still read to learn the how.

  • mention of a future event
  • show characters worrying about what might happen
  • a character declares that something won’t be a problem, which often hints to readers that the character will be proven wrong later

There are more examples, but I stopped there because I’m laughing. Wow, is there an example of that last kind of direct foreshadowing in Tasmakat! Except that the character is proven wrong almost immediately, so while this is going to ratchet up the tension through that scene, it’s so short a time between “foreshadowing” and “proven wrong” that I’m not sure it counts as foreshadowing. You are all going to recognize this moment when you see it. This isn’t a spoiler. It’s very, very obvious. It’s not meant to be subtle.

How about indirect? I think this must be much more like what I was thinking of. Let’s see:

Examples of Indirect Foreshadowing — Indirect foreshadowing uses subtlety, subtext, and/or misdirection to hide the story’s future, with the truth becoming clear only in hindsight.

  • show a prop earlier that will be important for the success of the final conflict
  • show a threatening object, hinting that it will eventually be used (i.e., Chekhov’s Gun)
  • allude to something in a throwaway phrase, often burying the detail in the middle of a sentence and/or paragraph, letting readers skim over and forget about the hint
  • toss out a seemingly normal statement that will resonate with more meaning in future events later
  • show a suspicious event, but have the viewpoint character believably decide there’s an innocuous reason, so readers don’t know the character assumed incorrectly until later

And again, more examples at the linked post.

I would not say “prop.” I mean, maybe. I would say object or environmental feature or worldbuilding element. I’m thinking of the weather in my example above, obviously. Also the thing Craig commented about is not a prop or an object, it’s a worldbuilding element. I expect worldbuilding elements are much more likely to be used this way in fantasy rather than anything with a contemporary setting.

There are lots and lots of foreshadowing elements in a normal book. That’s because if something turns out to be unimportant, the author may well remove that thing. And they should. Because Chekov is right: if you’re not going to fire that gun, most of the time, you should move it off the stage.

I really like the “seemingly normal statement that will resonate later.” Well, I like foreshadowing in general. If you now open Tasmakat planning to keep an eye out for foreshadowing, that’s fine, and you will notice plenty.

Let me see, what else? Oh, these are quite good lists: Direct foreshadowing can be most useful when … And then, indirect freshadowing can be most beneficial when …

Here’s the point I was making earlier, rephrased. Both of these are included in benefits of well-used indirect foreshadowing:

creates a sense of the story being deliberately woven together with a surprising-yet-inevitable ending

and again:

gives readers the satisfying feeling of “Wow! I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming” rather than the angry or betrayed feeling of “WTF? That came out of nowhere”

Bold in the original. These are, I think, by far the most important reasons to use foreshadowing. But I agree with basically all the other points in these lists. Here’s one I didn’t think of, but I love this point:

gives repeat readers something new to enjoy, as they put together new connections on a reread

I love this point for two reasons: When I’m re-reading, I really do love seeing the connections I might have missed the first time through, and when YOU are re-reading, I hope that YOU will enjoy seeing the connections you might have missed the first time you read MY books.

This is a really good post. It made me think about foreshadowing in a different way, which is great! By all means click through and read the whole thing.

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10 thoughts on “Foreshadowing”

  1. Oh I love this post. As a reader this hits all the things I love about foreshadowing. And “perspicacious” is a wonderful word!

  2. Good post. But one more: foreshadowing can impart emotion, most memorably sadness in Cold Mountain. You just know there’s no happy ending.

  3. One of my books (Cici and the Curator) has a twist/surprise at the end and possibly my favorite ever experience as an author was having my brother text me all of my foreshadowing as he reread it. It was so fun to have him catching all the little things he hadn’t put together when he read it for the first time. And cool, too, that he wanted to reread it, of course. Another one has an ending that comes as a surprise to romance readers, and not a surprise to mystery readers. (I think, anyway.) I personally thought I’d made it incredibly obvious and expected that readers would know by Chapter Ten, but… not so much. But I love foreshadowing, I love reading books where there are hints of what’s coming, and you get to have that “I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming” experience.

  4. You can usefully distinguish between foreshadowing and set-up.
    Set-up ensures that the solution is not a deus ex machina.
    Foreshadowing alerts the reader to the potentials ahead. Most foreshadowing is setup as well, but it doesn’t have to be the other way around. You can set up that a magical ring allows someone to fly, for instance, and then use it at once so the reader doesn’t realize it will be crucial at the climax.
    (The other way round? The only one I can think of is a girl who had memorized the Whole Duty of Man as “to do my duty in the station of life to which it has pleased God to call me,” only to be told that was wrong, it was “to do my duty in the station of life to which it shall please God to call me,” and oddly enough her station went up in the story.)

  5. Mary Catelli, thanks for this useful distinction- I’m getting better at identifying setup. Andrea Host clearly used Mika’s first assembly in Book of Firsts to identify major events/plot advancements. I was rereading it recently Bc I think her sequel ‘Four Kings’ may be coming out soonish.

  6. The Teen and I discussed this a lot over the last few days, and then the Teen put together examples of assorted kinds of foreshadowing from one old book, one old video game, one manga. I can clean it up and send it to our hostess if you’d like to see.

    It’s an interesting topic and I like looking at it.

  7. I’ve got it, Elaine, thank you. I’ll take a look next time I’m at a computer that’s connected to the Internet…

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