What is it that looks like magic, makes people think you’re a proper genius, and elevates your fiction from the humdrum?
No, it’s not signing with JK Rowling’s agent — thought that probably wouldn’t hurt — it’s foreshadowing. More specifically, it’s well-executed foreshadowing.
Have you ever read a book that made you punch the air because you’d spotted something most other readers would miss? Or have you had a moment of realisation at the end of a novel when all the pieces suddenly fell into place? I remember Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) having that effect on me. In fact, I was so awed at how cleverly Heller misdirected me that as soon as I finished the book I went back to the beginning and read it all over again. And you know what? I loved it just as much the second time. Maybe more so because this time I could see how well he’d played me.
What is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is giving your readers a hint of what is to come. It can take many forms. For instance:
Symbolic: Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) opens with “The leaves fell early that year” which heralds the untimely death of one of the characters.
Prophetic: The witches in Macbeth portend evil. Because they are liars and speak in riddles the fulfillment of their prophecies often happens in very unexpected ways. The pronouncement that Macbeth will be safe until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane is a perfect example. Macbeth believes he is safe because woods don’t walk but… Well, check out the play and see how clever that Shakespeare lad was.
You can also use prophesy in less poetic ways. A mother tells her son he’ll come to grief if he doesn’t wear his bicycle helmet; a teacher predicts the entire class will have to miss a treat if they don’t all pass their exams… I don’t even need to tell you the outcomes, do I?
Ironic: In Fatal Attraction, Alex, played by Glenn Close says, “Just bring the dog over. I’m great with animals and I love to cook.” Later, she kills a pet rabbit and cooks it. Yikes!
Why do I need it?
Foreshadowing is like saffron. Now, you don’t use saffron for everything; it has a very distinctive flavour, it’s also a colouring agent, and it’s very expensive. But if you use the right amount in the right dish… Well, this is what sets Michel Roux apart from the cook in your local cafe. Think of all the examples I’ve given you so far, and the ones in the examples list below: would these novels, plays or films be half as compelling if the author had skipped the foreshadowing element?
Fine. But How do I Use it?
You may not be able to apply foreshadowing in your first draft. You need to know every detail about where the plot is going before you plant your hints, clues or symbols. Once you have a pretty strong narrative worked out you can then plan where your foreshadowing goes. You’re adding it after you know the outcome, but to the reader it’ll look like you were just brilliant and had this amazing gift of foresight.
So, suppose you know that the main character is going to be abandoned by everyone at the end of the play or novel. A nice way to foreshadow this would be to have her opening line be, “I wish you’d all just go away and leave me alone…” Moral: Be careful what you wish for.
Or have that same character abandoned but in this version she’s clingy, afraid to let anyone out of her sight. She says, in a breathless, Scarlett O’Hara voice, “Oh, I’d just die if I had to live alone…” Then you end with her abandoned and picking up a revolver or a bottle of pills. You don’t need to see her die. We know it’s going to happen because she’s predicted it.
If you’re particularly clever — oh, go on, of course you are! — you can use misdirection. The clingy woman, for instance, ends up poisoning her whole family and having them stuffed and sat at her dinner table. “Now they’ll never leave me,” she cackles. (It’s a dark place inside my head sometimes.)
You might be drawn to the use of symbols. Perhaps in your story water is a destructive element. Maybe at the end of the story your character will drown himself. Start with a comment about how the rain had destroyed the roof and now the house was damp.
You need to decide how subtle you want your hints to be. In my opinion, some of the best examples of foreshadowing only become apparent after the event they suggest. Look at the character Orr in Catch-22. All through the novel his behaviour seems strange, unfathomable. It’s not till you get to the very end that you discover how clever Orr (and Heller) really is. Almost everything Orr does foreshadows his ultimate fate which is hilariously, gloriously unexpected and perfect.
Don’t Look Now
One of the very best examples of foreshadowing is the short story by Daphne Du Maurier, Don’t Look Now. which appears in the collection Not After Midnight (1971) It’s also a critically-acclaimed film by Nicolas Roeg starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie (1973).
Because it’s a highly suspenseful story I don’t want to give away too many plot details and spoil it. However, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The story is replete with symbols, images and elements that don’t come together until after the very end.
One thing I will say, though, is John (Sutherland) is an art restorer and part of his job involves taking small pieces of stained glass or mosaic and forming an image. In this way John reflects what the reader / audience is doing with the plot.
The Lord of the Rings
In The Lord of the Rings (1954) Frodo tells Gandalf he wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance. Gandalf replies, “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” Which is, of course, exactly what happens. And Tolkien, clever clogs that he was, even has Gandalf say, “Even the wisest cannot see all ends.” So how clever does Gandalf look when he imparts this piece of wisdom? How clever does Tolkien look?
In the TV series Sherlock (2010) we get several hints of what’s coming to the main character. Moriarty says, “I owe you a fall…” And , of course, at the end of S.2, Sherlock does fall.
But Sherlock’s fate wasn’t the only one to be foreshadowed. In the very first episode, Phil, the cabby, tells Sherlock, “I’m going to talk to you and you’re going to kill yourself…” In a nice piece of reversal, this is exactly what happens to ‘Jim’ Moriarty. Sherlock talks to him and he kills himself. Well, apparently. We haven’t seen S.4 yet…
One last thing about foreshadowing: Don’t make promises you forget to keep. Remember Chekhov’s advice (no, not the squeaky fellow on Star Trek.) Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright and short story writer.
In other words, if you drop a whopping big hint that something is going to happen in the story (or play) it bloomin’ well better happen. It’s like making a promise to a child. If you break that promise they’ll never forget it. They’ll never let you forget it.
Making magic is easy.
You don’t even need a wand.