Saturday, May 7, 2011

The shadows I see are worse than those that hide from me

I've been thinking a lot about foreshadowing lately, and when it's good, and when it's not.

When foreshadowing is done well, it's subtle. The reader won't realise they're being given a hint of future Big Events, at least not until the Big Event happens and then all will become clear, and the reader will think to themselves, Ah! I get it now. The Big Event won't have come out of the blue, completely unexpectedly, but the reader just won't have realised they were expecting it.


JK Rowling is the master of subtle foreshadowing. The entire Harry Potter series is threaded together in so many small ways that seem insignificant when first read, but everything has a greater meaning. One of the most basic examples is at the start of the first book, Harry talks to the snake at the zoo. Later we learn that he's a parseltongue and the ability is rare. But when I first read the books, Harry's ability to talk to the snake at the start was only proof of magic, nothing more. Not until later.

On the other end of the spectrum there's obvious foreshadowing. Perhaps the most cliched is:
It was a dark and stormy night...
Yea, ok, so something bad's gonna happen, right? Another one which is quite common is:
I shouldn't have left the house that day, if I hadn't XXX would never have happened...
Or some variation on that. Personally, I'd prefer to be surprised than to read so much heavy handed foreshadowing throughout the book that I know exactly what will happen when it happens. It takes away the excitement and the payoff for spending the time reading the book.

So how do you get the foreshadowing right?

Well, I'm no expert on this, but I can tell you what has worked for me, and what I think has worked in the books I've read.

First, don't make a big deal over the hints you've dropped. Assume your readers are smart, because they are. They don't need you to put flashing red arrows up to show them the clues. They'll see them, but they'll appreciate them a lot more if they can figure out the importance on their own. If your MC's going to get charged by a bull today, instead of blatantly saying:
I threw on my lucky red sweater, but little did I know that it was the bad luck I was going to get today...
Just leave it at:
I threw on my lucky read sweater and ran out the door...
Red sweater? Check. Does the reader think it's important? Not yet. Later? Aha!

Next, don't try to get all your foreshadowing in first draft. This is near impossible if you're a pantster anyway (which I am). If you're a plotter I'm sure it's easier to slip some foreshadowing in while you're writing the first draft, but as is often the case with first drafts it might not be done well. And things change, do they not?

Once you've got the first draft done, figure out the major events, the things that can't just happen out of the blue because then your readers will be left scratching their heads (which is just as bad as them knowing it's going to happen before it happens). Once you know this, in revisions go back and slip in your clues. The off-hand comments and the seemingly inconsequential details about setting or character descriptions or whatever.

Sometimes if you've allowed your muse to do its thing during first draft you'll find you've unintentionally left hints, Holly Lisle calls these muse bombs, and they are often more interesting (and subtle) than the hints you drop intentionally.

Test your foreshadowing on beta readers. Are they surprised but in a good way when your Big Events happen? Disappointed at figuring out the story before your MC did? Scratching their heads going WTH just happened? Trust me, beta readers and crit partners are gold.

And of course, keep practising. Don't give up. You'll get there!

What do you look for in foreshadowing? Have examples of good? Bad? Any tips on making it work in your own writing?


  1. Haha! Muse bombs, I like that.

    And I agree that JK Rowling is the MASTER of subtle foreshadowing! I think I first learnt what foreshadowing was purely from reading her books! (I was kinda young when the first ones came out...)

  2. I have to admit that one of my fave quotes from my MG sequel is this:

    "It was a dark and stormy night in the depths of Claw Clarey’s mind."

  3. Oh man I've come across some horrible foreshadowing in my time.
    I totally agree with you. The reader needs to find these things out without being spoon fed. Because nothing is worse than feeling like the writer thinks you (the reader) are stupid. And half the fun is thinking back over the book, thinking how everything linked together and fit in so perfectly.
    If you're told everything, 'little did she know, that the red jumper ... ', it just takes the excitement and suspense out.
    I'm in awe of writers who do good foreshadowing.

  4. There's nothing wrong with clunky foreshadowing. It can give away plot twists, and also can be a little offensive. You start to think: 'Does the author think we're stupid? That we can't get subtle?' Less is more when it comes to foreshadowing.

  5. Foreshadowing and suspense can be hard to do. I think the key -- or a very big part of it -- is good character development. Usually, when the foreshadowing seems off, it's because the characters haven't behaved in a plausible manner. It's all about the subtle hints, the little lick of ominous detail for page-turning crack, and the belief that this character is so very interesting that you know a) something's coming and b) it's going to be awesome/exciting/tragic/jaw-dropping.

    Worst case of foreshadowing -- or lack thereof -- I saw recently was in Dan Brown's Lost Symbol. Guy gets called by somebody suspicious to meet at a certain time but "does not know why." Only on meeting said suspicious type are we told that the guy was asked to bring a special item with him from a safe. D'you think suspicious guy wanted the item? Well...duh. Thanks for that blatant abuse of third person close, Mr Brown!

  6. I'm from YAtopia, I saw your comment there and figured I'd come over. Romance is my fav part of books too.

    Foreshadowing is awesome if done right and so it's not so in your face, which can be hard. I'm in awe at authors who pull it off well.

    Good post.

  7. This is so true. Like you mentioned, I find it a lot easier to do foreshadowing when I think of it as dropping hints. Just a thought here, a line of dialogue there. When I think of it as Foreshadowing, it seems so serious, like it has to be something big.

  8. I totally agree with you. As I re-read Frankenstein (because I'm teaching it) I admire Shelley's ability to build suspense and foreshadow brilliantly. Unfortunately, because everyone know the basic story, it's lost on our generation.

    Another "expert" at this? Agatha Christie. She is one of the few writer's whose mysteries I can't figure out ahead of time.

    BTW, thank you for the query letter feedback on my blog. I just made some revision this morning based on your suggestions.

  9. When I get to the revision of my book THINKING OF YOU, I'm definitely going to need help with my foreshadowing.

  10. I think if it's a deliberate and well thought out use, cliched frases can often be made brilliant again.

  11. There's nothing wrong, or there is something wrong? I'm confused, lol. :) I'm going to agree with everything you said after the first sentence! ;)

  12. Lol, true, just the word 'foreshadowing' is a mouthful. It's not exactly a subtle word, and yet when done well it is subtle.

  13. Excellent post. Love the term 'muse bombs'! This happened to me a few times, I wrote things and didn't really know why I was mentioning them, then they turned out to be perfect foreshadowing. Sometimes I am a little afraid of my subconscious...

  14. Madeleine MaddocksJanuary 20, 2012 at 9:01 PM

    Great post. Lovely blog. I am constantly thinking about foreshadowing in my stories. I guess with JKR she knew her story inside out before she started writing. She had notebooks filled with research and ideas before she wrote the 1st book. :O)

  15. Ahhh the muse bombs, never thought of them like that. I always amaze myself when I re-read a draft and see one of these thinking... wow I'm thought ahead without realizing it..hehe Great post.

  16. GREAT post,

    I hate it when authors foreshadow too much, it treats the readers like they are idiots. It's amazing how much we do get from one line. You don't need to repeat it over and over again.

    If we don't get it, it is a nice surprise when we get there.

    However, i have done a very very very obvious forshadow at the start of my current WIP, but it is so obvious that it is NOT treating the audience like idiots. It is the character reminiscing about the day everything started. We know from the back of the book what happened anyway so i think this will be ok.

    Tips for making it work. I often highlight sentences that forshadow as i am writing them. That way when i edit i know how many are foreshadowing the event. I think sometimes the author doesn't know how much they have actually done. But that is what i do. Love to hear some other advice.

    anyway great post,


  17. Beta readers and crit partners are THE BEST.

    I had a ton of foreshadowing to do in the novel I just finished. There were times I wondered if I was putting too many hints in, leading up to a particular reveal and it was so helpful and fantastic to see what my beta readers thought.

    (Also: I totally agree that J.K. Rowling is brilliant at foreshadowing.)

  18. That's a good idea for getting the foreshadowing right, Sarah. I'll have to try that with my current revisions.

    Sounds like the part in your story is not so much foreshadowing but more the way the story is structured. It sounds fine to me! :)

  19. Stephanie ThorntonJanuary 20, 2012 at 9:01 PM

    I love that poster!

    I'm playing with foreshadowing in my current WIP. Some is subtle, but some is not--it's kind of fun to play with!

  20. Got here from a blog hop. Not that well versed at such writing techniques. Actually got to know what foreshadowing means from this post!

    So let me get this right. Say in LOTR, when they introduce Gandalf, they make him out to be nothing more than a magician and the reader only comes to know later about his amazing powers. So that's foreshadowing?

    And when JK Rowling casually mentioning the bloody Baron's messy state without giving a reason and then later we find out the ghost's pasts.

    And what if I say something like I saw some commotion happening outside and without checking it out I came into office and then later I come to know one of my colleagues was run over in an accident and that was the commotion I heard previously.

    Just trying to get a full breadth on the topic.

  21. Love this post :) And the term "muse bombs."

    Foreshadowing is a great tool. As long as it isn't smacking you in the face. It annoys me to no end when an author sticks a flashing neon sign to the side of their hints, like they're sure the reader isn't smart enough to catch it on their own.