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.

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