Midweek Writer-Rummage - Foreshadowing

Following on from last week’s stab into the past, this week we peek into the future.  Foreshadowing is used when you want to plant information in the reader’s mind, the kind of information that seems insignificant but which will prove to be vital later in the story.  If done well, these clues will establish credibility for even the most bizarre event.  Most times, the clues are understated, and it’s only when the reader re-reads the book, does he fully understand them.

Foreshadowing serves a couple of purposes.  It flags up your story’s main events, and it creates suspense.  Together, these two encourage the reader to keep on reading, knowing that something noteworthy is definitely going to happen.  Remember, though, to keep the reader guessing – don’t make the mistake of giving too much away.  And if you spelt something out, make sure you deliver.  If you don’t, you’re betraying your reader’s trust.

A few ways to incorporate foreshadowing:

  • Through descriptive detail, like having the weather mirror a grim event.
  • Through mood; for example, having a character react unnaturally to an innocuous event.  This could be a mother preparing dinner, but she’s tense, sweating and keeps staring at the telephone.
  • Through a prophetic saying.  One of the best examples must surely be Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ – ‘Beware the Ides of March.'
  • Through dialogue.  Like this from one of my all-time favourite novels, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.  

Here, Atticus Finch is explaining to his son, Jem, the brave choice an old woman had taken in her final days:

I wanted you to see something about her – I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.  [She] won ...  According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody.  She was the bravest person I ever knew.

By stating that courage comes from striving to do what you believe in even when the odds are against you, the story foreshadows Atticus’ efforts to defend Tom Robinson in court although he knows that the case is hopeless.  He takes on the case because he believes it is the right thing to do.

More examples of foreshadowing:

Apart from using flashbacks in ‘Of Mice and Men’, John Steinbeck also peppered it with copious amounts of foreshadowing.  It was only as I got to the end of the book, did I realise the number of signposts he’d laid out, all pointing to the outcome.  In the first few pages, when we’re introduced to George and Lennie, it’s obvious that George is the one who looks after both of them.  And, no matter how hard he tries, Lennie inadvertently gets himself, and George, into trouble.  George’s outburst unwittingly hints at things to come:

… I got you! You can’t keep a job and you lose me ever’ job I get.  Jus’ keep me shovin’ all over the country all the time.  An’ that ain’t the worst.  You get in trouble.  You do bad things and I got to get you out.”  His voice rose nearly to a shout.  “You crazy son-of-a-bitch.  You keep me in hot water all the time … ‘Jus’ wanted to feel that girls’ dress – jus’ wanted to pet it like it was a mouse …’ Well, how the hell did she know you jus’ wanted to feel her dress?  She jerks back and you hold on like it was a mouse.  She yells and we got to hide in a irrigation ditch all day with guys lookin’ for us, and we got to sneak out in the dark and get outta the country.  All the time somethin’ like that – all the time.

In ‘The Hobbit’, when Bilbo and the dwarves are with Beorn, he warns them to take care in Mirkwood …

… your way through Mirkwood is dark, dangerous and difficult … There is one stream there, I know, black and strong which crosses the path.  That you should neither drink of, nor bathe in; for I have heard that it carries enchantment and a great drowsiness and forgetfulness.  And in the dim shadows of that place I don’t think you will shoot anything, wholesome or unwholesome, without straying from the path.  That you MUST NOT do, for any reason …

And that is one huge marker that there is something very bad indeed that lives in Mirkwood.  The moment the travellers set foot in Mirkwood, you’re waiting for something to happen that will lead them off the path.

This next book, one I’ve only recently read, is filled with foreshadowing, which starts almost from the beginning of the story.  It started interestingly enough, I was drawn in and looked forward, each day, to continuing with the story.  But then, not even halfway in, I started to get annoyed.  There were a few reasons, including very little character development.  But the one I want to mention here is the foreshadowing.  There was too much.  And there was nothing subtle about it.  I’m talking about ‘ The Book Thief’.  Yes, I know the book is immensely popular, and I’m going out on a limb here by saying that I did not enjoy it.  In the spirit of fairness, I shall give an example of the foreshadowing that piqued my interest, fairly early on, in the first chapter:

When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started not just to mean something, but everything.  Was it when she first set eyes on the room with shelves and shelves of them?  Or when Max Vandenburg arrived on Himmel Street carrying handfuls of suffering and Hitler’s Mein Kamp?  Was it reading in the shelters?  The last parade to Dachau?  Was it The Word Shake?  Perhaps there would never be a precise answer as to when and where it occurred.  In any case, that’s getting ahead of myself.  Before we make it to any of that, we first need to tour Liesel Meminger’s beginnings on Himmel Street …

For me, the foreshadowing took a downward turn with this – I won’t mention names so as not to give anything away:

A small announcement about … He didn’t deserve to die the way he did … he was not deserving of the fate that met him a little under two years later …

And that’s not even halfway through the book.  Knowing the named character was going to die made reading the rest of the book nothing more than an exercise in going through the motions so I could say, ‘I read the book’.  The author’s explanation, via the narrator, is not good enough:

Of course, I’m being rude.  I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it.  I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery.  Mystery bores me.  It chores me.  I know what happens and so do you.  It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest and astound me.

There are many things to think of.

There is much story.

If the narrator/author does not have much interest in building mystery, what then is the point of a story that fails to keep the reader guessing?  I don’t care that the narrator knows what happens.  The reader does not, and this reader enjoys the mystery of only finding out what happens at the end, when I’m supposed to; not to be told beforehand, only to wait for the inevitable.  It leeches much out of the story.  For me, this is a case of overuse of foreshadowing.

And that is the reason I firmly believe when it comes to incorporating foreshadowing in your story, the key thing to remember – maintain suspense.