Monthly Archives: August 2009

How to Improve Your Story: Thou Shalt Foreshadow


This just in – a cool review of 101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters”… 

… by a UCLA writing instructor and well-known online guru.

You can read it HERE.

On to today’s post:  

Foreshadowing is one of those essential little storytelling kinks – I like to think of it as an opportunity – that can be at once easier than it looks yet challenging to pull off.  If that sounds contradictory and confusing, welcome to the balancing act that is writing fiction.

And welcome to a nifty little skill that can take your novel or screenplay to the next level.

Foreshadowing is easy when it is intentionally obvious.  Just show it.  It’s challenging when it needs to be subtle.  You hope someone notices it from the periphery of what otherwise occupies your narrative center stage.

The Definition of Foreshadowing: Anything that links to, or reveals a glimpse of, or a hint about, a forthcoming story point or issue of characterization, but without yet being a salient story point itself in the moment it is revealed.

Foreshadowing is like the aroma of cooking wafting into the next room.  Sometimes you know what you’re smelling, other times you only know something’s cooking without knowing what it is.

If it’s supposed to be obvious attach emotion to it – what’s cooking smells good. Or, it’s stinking up the place.

If it’s supposed to be subtle, then allow it pass without much notice. 

You can foreshadow virtually anything in a story. 

A completely contrived example of foreshadowing.

Our hero forgets a grocery list when he leaves for work in the morning because he and his wife are fighting.  Showing it lying there on the table as the hero walks out the door… that’s foreshadowing. 

Showing that they’re arguing is foreshadowing, too. 

Showing his wife, who claims she’s sick and is staying home from her job that day, pop open a fifth of Jack Daniels before he backs out of the garage… that’s also foreshadowing.  This might happen with her setting down the bottle of Jack right on top of the forgotten grocery list, which is a creative way to execute it.

Having her smell yesterday’s bouquet of flowers longingly and perhaps sadly, maybe touching a finger sensually to her lips as she does… that could be foreshadowing, too.

Cut to later that afternoon.   The wife, three sheets to the wind, emerges from a hotel after a tryst with a lover.  She holds one of the flowers in her hand.

On the way home she stops at the store to fetch the groceries her hubby won’t because he forgot the list, which rests on the seat next to her.

Then she’s killed in an accident as she pulls into the street from the store parking lot (that would be the first plot point).  The hero’s life is suddenly very different. 

All of it has been foreshadowed before it actually happens.

The role of foreshadowing.

Notice that the foreshadowing here – the forgotten grocery list, the flowers, the lip smacking, the bottle – isn’t directed toward the accident itself or its aftermath, but at the set-up for that particular plot point.

Foreshadowing is hinting, pure and simple.  It’s a promise that may or may not be kept.  It’s the suggestion of tension and consequence, but without shape or form, delivered as detail, minutia or otherwise meaningless or distracting dialogue or action.

If, while watching a movie or reading a novel, you wonder why the author took the time to point your attention toward what seems like an unimportant detail, chances are you’ve just been exposed to foreshadowing.

So is foreshadowing the dropping of a clue?  Well, it can be, but doesn’t have to be.  Depends on what you define as a clue.  If it’s an obvious piece of the puzzle, then it may not really be foreshadowing at all. 

Like a red high heel, size 7, found next to a body at the crime scene.   That may as well have a sign on it: notice me, I’m a clue.

But if it’s something that isn’t obviously connected to the story, but later becomes something you remember that you now know you should have assigned meaning to – like a man buying a pair of red high heels, careful to specify he needs them in a size 7, later to end up dead with one of them lying three feet from his body, the other embedded between his eyes – that’s foreshadowing, rather than a clue. 

Foreshadowing is like story structure: once you recognize it for what it is, it leaps off the page or the screen with abundant and empowering clarity.

A time and place for foreshadowing.

It could be successfully argued that the first quarter of your story – Part 1 of a novel, the First Act of a screenplay – is nothing if not artful wall-to-wall foreshadowing.  By definition Part/Act 1 is all set-up, so virtually anything that shows on these pages is fair game as a foreshadowing vehicle. 

You can foreshadow later, too, but never in Part 4 (Act 3 in sceenplays) of the story.  The second plot is the absolute final opportunity to foreshadow coming events.

As the author, you need to understand how to use this tool.  Heavy-handed or deliciously subtle, that’s your call.

The best way to learn foreshadowing techniques is to begin to notice them in the novels and movies you consume.  See how many foreshadowing moments you can detect, then pay attention to how they later link to the unfolding story.  Try to differentiate the foreshadowing of plot elements versus characterization.  Both can serve a story well.

The more you see it in play, the more confident you’ll be in becoming a foreshadowing puppet master in your own right.

And then, perhaps, thou shalt publish what you write.

Photo credit: dogbomb.  

If you liked the review of “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters,” you can buy it HERE.  Cheap, too.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

Random Musings From Under the Publishing Bus


Things have been pretty heavy here on Storyfix lately.  A 10-part series on Story Structure that lasted 13 parts.  Three ways to do this, five ways to do that.  A new ebook.  Me learning what HTML means. 

If you’re new here, don’t be confused or discouraged.  This is a serious writing site, big time.  It’s just that today isn’t the day for serious.  It’s a day to celebrate the writing life.

Because I just sold a novel.  Emailed the publisher my agreement to the last of the contract revisions this morning.  I’m pretty excited, this novel was built on an idea hatched in 1979, and it waited until a couple of years ago until I thought I was writer enough for the story.

But a good story waits for no writer.  Part of the process is taking on a story that scares the hell out of you.

It was a hard sell.  My agent at the time said it was the best thing I’d ever done — this after four critically-acclaimed published novels — but they couldn’t make it happen.  Too rich, too scary, too controversial for New York, they said.  Try a smaller publisher, they said. 

And so I did.  I found a guy with a vision and the courage to rock the boat.  And so, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, an apocalyptic thriller that explores the proximity of the goings-on in the Book of Revelation in context to today’s harrowing times, will be released soon, hopefully by year end. 

New York doesn’t like thrillers with the word “God” in them.  Even if you swear it’s not a religious story, which it isn’t.  It’s about people who main and kill and plot to overthrow because of what they believe to be religious.  Publishers can’t get past their first impression, both of me and of the market.  Dan Brown has been there, done that.  Besides, they wanted me to write more stories with hog-tied women on the cover.  Which I will someday soon, but for now I have Whisper.  And I have Storyfix.

A guy named Kyle Mills, whose father knew Tom Clancy personally and got a blurb out of him for his son’s first novel, the fact of which propelled Kyle to the front of the class, wrote a book in which a serial killer attaches a victim to an I.V. line to prolong the sexual torture he was into.  Exquisite detail ensued. 

Meanwhile, during that same timeframe, someone in New York decided to put a woman with her hands bound by a scarf on the front of my first novel — not my idea, by the way — and the book ended up being classified as erotica in all the major bookclubs and a few stores.  One lady who owned an independent bookstore in Tucson practically threw me bodily out of her store. 

Prolonged sadistic torture — yes, she carried Kyle Mills’s book — hey, let’s do it.  A little kink, though, and its off to the back room for you.

This may be hard to believe, but  the suits who hatch the market strategies for our books don’t always read them.

I just cut the price of my new ebook in half.  Sales quadrupled immediately.  If my math serves me correctly, I believe we’ve just witnessed the end of the recession.  I knew I took Econ 101 for reason.

A few years ago I saw that Royal Caribbean was running a contest: best 150 words on why you like to cruise wins an all-expense paid luxury cruise for four.  Being the ex-copy jock that I am, and an avid lover of cruising, I dove in.  Cut to a few months later, I get an email.  Guess who won?  Moi.  First place out of 15,000 entries. 

Take that, those of you at my old agency who still don’t think I can write ad copy.

Then I read the fine print: “no professionals allowed to enter.”  This was just after my fourth novel got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, so I had to fess up.  Here’s what’s interesting, though: people came out of the woodwork to suggest ways I could beat the system.  To lie.  To cheat.  Tell them my wife wrote it.  Withhold the truth about my profession and hope they didn’t go near a bookstore any time soon.

Many of these well-intended people, I fear, are in politics today. 

I fessed up, and of course they took the trip away.  As consolation they sent me two bathrobes, two hats and a backpack.

Recently on another website I commented that learning to write a novel or a screenplay by simply starting to write one, without understanding story archecture, was like a pilot trying to learn to fly without ground school, by hopping into the cockpit solo.  The wonderful lady who authors that site took issue, claiming that she had documented evidence, supposedly from an aviation expert, that the best way to learn to fly is, in fact, by getting into the cockpit and taking off. 

Three words: crash and burn.

My wish for you is that you never buy a ticket on that airline.  Or, that you won’t have to read the book that particular pilot writes.  No problem there… nobody will.

Another website owner just asked me if I could “dumb down” my stuff.  Don’t worry… I won’t.  At least not here. 

The author photo used in my first book, published in 2000, was taken in 1991.  At a booksigning a woman picked up a copy, looked at the picture, looked back up at me, and said, “Holy shit, what the hell happened to you?”

Getting published has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life.

Favorite opening line I’ve written thus far: She was scalding hot heroin dripped slowly into an open wound.  Never touched the stuff, to be honest, but I’ll tell you honestly that it was inspired by my wife, who hasn’t either.

Write on.

Photo credit: xddorox


Filed under other cool stuff