How to Improve Your Story: Thou Shalt Foreshadow

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by Larry Brooks on August 26, 2009

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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.

Lori August 26, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Hey Larry,

Foreshadowing heads to the top of my favorite writing-related discussions list. In movies, I always bump my husband’s elbow when an obvious foreshadowing event takes place. (I know, I’m a total geek!)

I’m psyched that you wrote about this in your own hero way. Again, StoryFix Clean Wipes clears a complicated topic so I can clearly see where to go.

Good on ‘ya, Larry. :P
P.S. Congrats on the positive review!

Sharon August 26, 2009 at 6:03 pm

A great article on a slippery topic. Thanks!

Sharon

Dan Holloway August 27, 2009 at 5:12 am

This ties in perfectly with a greta blog I read last night:
http://sheribr.blogspot.com/2009/08/scbwi-summer-2009-day-1.html

which was about the importance of the opening page, and how it should tell us what kind of world we live in. Foreshadowing can be a whole lot subtler, like you say, than a close-up of a gun telling us someone will be shot. Sometimes it can be so subtle we only realise it’s there in retrospect (but it gives depth to the event foreshadowed).

It sounds really daft, but a gret example of foreshadowing is the song Two Little Boys (YES, the Rolf Harris one). Think about it and you’ll see. On a purely verbal level, it’s actually really smart

jennifer blanchard August 27, 2009 at 11:41 am

Hey Larry, great post! I was literally just asking about foreshadowing last night! I was working on the rewrites to chapter 6 in my forthcoming novel, and I was trying to determine if the foreshadowing I had in place was too obvious or if it needed to be more subtle. Now I think I know exactly what to do with it, so thanks!

J.Morgan August 27, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Quickly becoming my favorite part of writing. Foreshadowing is what, makes me want to read it again.

Also it’s the biggest challenge to me being subtle. I’m not a subtle person and I have been learning about embedding my foreshadowing into scenes adding to the flow of the story so I hope I’ve gotten it right.

You said that at the fourth plot point you shouldn’t put any new information in. But what if it’s foreshadowing for the next in the series. If it’s subtle enough do you think it will ruin anything?

Larry August 28, 2009 at 8:18 am

On that last question, allow me to clarify. There is no “fourth plot point” in story architecture — I’m thinking you meant to say “part 4,” which is the final and concluding segment of the story. And you’re right, you can’t inject new story information into it.

Unless — this is what you’re hoping to hear, I think — it’s in the form of an epilogue of some sort. Which occurs after you’ve wrapped up the story your book is telling. What makes a series fly is the appeal of the character, rather than the specifics of the story. Whatever you leave hanging — and it cannot be the primary through-line of the book — can become the stuff of a sequel, but it must remain a secondardy consideration.

Your book-specific story needs to resolve itself, and do so within the parameters of solid story structure. Which means, most of the foreshadowing takes place in Part 1 (the set-up), but it can also be omnipresent moving forward. Question is, foreshadowing of what? In Part 1, you’re primarily foreshadowing Plot Point One (which concludes Part 1), and also, much more subtlely, the forthcoming events as they relate to the antagonistic force in your story.

You can, and even should, foreshadow Plot Point Two, which is the last new piece of information you can inject into your story. But after that, no more foreshadowing allowed, you need to drive relentless toward your conclusion, and with an accellerated pace.

Thinking too much about your series, and rationalizing the violation of story architecture principles in the name of it, is a potential deal-killer, especially for an unpublished first-entry in that series. Agents and editors rarely, if ever, accept a “series,” per se, they accept a book. And it must stand alone. If the book succeeds, then and only then will the series continue, at least in published form. Which means, you need to write that first stand alone book (even if in your mind it’s the first of a series) according to the best practices of story architecture.

Hope this helps clarify.

J.Morgan August 28, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Yeah it did. I have a killer ending that will conclude the story. I was just kinda hanging there wondering if I should do more, but you’re right.
Being a newbee I should take it easy. Swinging hard for the fences to get my foot in the door.

Thanks!

Emma September 1, 2009 at 10:57 am

Thanks for all the great information on your site! I’ve started applying everything I’m reading on here, and I’m really excited at the way it’s shaping my story. I wanted to put in a request, if you’ll take it. :) I’d love to hear your thoughts on how a subplot fits in and melds with the main plot, and what the pacing should be (where the mid-point of the subplot should be, etc.). Thanks!

Samantha September 4, 2009 at 10:13 am

I’m a reader not a writer (yet), but I love reading about writing. *grin*

As a reader (or viewer), I really enjoy subtle foreshadowing. The feeling of little things I’ve read/seen earlier in the story “clicking” into place is wonderful. When I thump my forehead and say, “Of course! I should have seen it coming… look at all the hints!” makes me really appreciate the cleverness of the story’s creator.

If I pick up on the subtle clues on my own, I feel quite a bit of smug satisfaction that I “got it.” (also enjoyable)

The only time I don’t like foreshadowing is when I’m hit over the head with it. That makes me feel like all the story between the foreshadowing and the foreshadowed is just boring filler.

The only exception to this is when I THINK I know the ending, and the story creator has amazed me with a wonderful twist-ending that is satisfying and not gimicky.

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