I was talking to one of my beta-readers the other day and they got me thinking about foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is important to having a satisfying ending, especially if the reader doesn’t see that ending coming. Without foreshadowing, readers may feel confused and lost. That’s okay if that’s the effect you’re going for, but be warned, sharp turns, like on a really rough, old, wooden roller coaster (I’ll take the smooth metal ones, thank you), can leave a reader nauseated if they aren’t prepared.
For example, I once critiqued a short story which started out sounding like a pleasant memoir. Kind of happy-go-lucky scenes, but the story rambled. It lacked direction. A couple plot points seemed out of place with the tone of the rest of the story, but they still felt… normal. Then, out of nowhere, there was a rather graphic scene that scarred the character (and the unsuspecting reader). In all fairness, I don’t mind stories that have some graphic violence, but in this particular story, that scene came out of the blue. It wasn’t satisfying. Had the foreshadowing been stronger, I think the scene could have worked perfectly, but the author wasn’t inclined to make changes to the manuscript that would allow such foreshadowing to take place. Their story, their say, but that incident did get me to start thinking about how important foreshadowing is to a story’s plot.
Some foreshadowing happens intentionally. You leave clues for the reader to create an expectation about what’s to come. This can occur within a short scene, across a book, or across a series. You might see this in the form of a prophecy. An example of this can be seen in Lord of the Rings movie, when the leader of the ringwraiths tells Eowyn (who is concealed by her armor), “No man can kill me,” and she replies, “I am no man,” then proceeds to defeat him. Prophecies are ripe with foreshadowing, and my favorites are the ones that seem clear but have double-meanings. The Sight, by David Clement-Davies, also uses prophecy to foreshadow events, and then twists the prophecy’s meaning to have a different ending than expected. With foreshadowing, those twists are exciting, rather than confusing. Take a look at any Twilight Zone episode. These shows often take unexpected turns, but those endings were cleverly foreshadowed so that the viewer has an ‘ah-ha!’ moment. Suddenly all the puzzle pieces fall into place and the viewer understands.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury also has several examples of foreshadowing. The story revolves around two twelve-year-old boys who discover a dark secret about the carnival that has come to their town. Throughout the book, the tone is dark, sinister, foreboding. Before the carnival arrives, we know a storm is coming because a lightning-rod salesman announces the coming of a storm and proceeds to gift the boys with a lightning-rod that has been adorned with various ancient, mystical symbols. But when the storm arrives, it’s not a lightning storm, as predicted, but the mysterious carnival with a dark, illustrated man and his tricks. The lightning-rod’s ancient symbols hint at the coming dark magic, and even (as the story later reveals) that the magic is ancient. Later in the story (Warning, spoilers ahead!), Will’s father (who has been foreshadowing the sinister purpose of the circus through his unease and concern) discovers that his laughter hurts the dust witch (who is absolutely creepy in her own right). Faced with the chance to confront her during a so-called ‘bullet trick,’ he carves a crescent moon into the bullet before firing. The crescent moon isn’t a moon, however, it’s a smile, and it kills her. (As a side note, the end of this book had me daydreaming an entertaining My Little Pony crossover where Pinkie Pie must face off with the Illustrated Pony…)
Foreshadowing allowed the ending to make sense, and for the reader to anticipate how the main characters would defeat the evil carnival. Readers keep reading in hopes of seeing if their theories prove true.
In a sense, foreshadowing is a shadow cast by the future. It can be a pale shadow, a single line or reference that hints at what’s to come. Or it can be a heavy shadow, a constant application of tone and mood and imagery. Characters may have suspicions (incorrect or not) about the future, which you can use to foreshadow events and to create lovely twists when the reader least expects them. Foreshadowing creates questions that entice a reader to keep turning pages. If you have a genre shift in your book, foreshadowing may be immensely important to keeping readers on board. Foreshadowing is a way to help readers suspend disbelief. Same with characters. If they’re going to need an obscure skill later to save the day, showing this early on, even in passing, allows the reader to believe in the character when the time comes.
Another kind of foreshadowing is the kind you don’t mean to add. Sometimes you write subtle hints into the story that you read later, which point at the outcome even though you didn’t realize you wrote them. There’s a line in Distant Horizon that stopped me cold after I’d written the rough draft of Glitch, a sequel in which one of the main characters dies rather horribly to save their friends. I remembered writing the line, but I hadn’t realized the potential impact it would have and how true it was. Granted, the line only has impact if you read Distant Horizon after Glitch, but it does provide a little bit of set-up for the character in question.
I also use foreshadowing heavily in The Little One, a prequel novel for the Distant Horizon series. Little One is a childlike spirit who has a number of chilling visions which eventually come to pass in one way or another. In several of the scenes (as they currently stand, since I still need to do edits), she references a rising sun. The rising sun is a reference to a symbol in the later stories, but, aside from being an Easter egg for readers, these scenes are meant to add to the story’s mood. The scenes start off lighter and become progressively darker. I’ve truncated a few scenes and edited them to make sense out of context:
First scene where the sun is referenced as foreshadowing…
One morning, Knight had gotten up early to use the restroom and found Little One staring out the window in her make-shift bedroom. Tiny rays of pink sunlight flickered across her face through the trees.
“It’s pretty,” she said absently.
He wandered around the foot of the bed and squeezed in beside her. The air conditioner tickled his feet from the floorboards, and early light twinkled across his eyes. He blinked. He hadn’t really watched the rising sun lately. Most the time he was sleeping. Or if he was headed to work, he was planning out his day. Not watching the sun slowly grow and ascend.
“It’s changing,” Little One said.
He glanced at her. “Yeah. It’s because of the earth’s spin and–”
“Not that. It’s different.”
He tried to tell if there was anything different from this sunrise than all the other sunrises he’d ever seen, but it looked the same as any other sunrise.
Little One shook her head. “It’s different. Just a little. Small. But it’s different.”
Knight twisted his lips. The kid seemed attuned to the subtle variances an adult couldn’t see, and he didn’t want to think about what those variances might be if she had insight for a power.
Knight sat down the drawings. There were images from Little One’s dreams, but there were other drawings, too. Swirling night skies and rising suns. And each time, Little One drew the sun just a little bit darker.
Hawk looked one more time at the drawing scribbled on his wall. On the far side, scribbled between the happy images of trees and squirrels, was a rising red sun, with five rays extending from it like spokes, but each cut off halfway through their usual extension.
Later… (One of Little One’s visions)
The poster was blurred to Little One. She paused, taking a second look. She couldn’t see it well, save for the red, rising sun of her usual vision. Then reality shifted. The normal colors downgraded, passing through a dark veil. The sun twisted and darkened, shrinking on itself until only five tiny rays remained, red as fresh-drawn blood. The buildings loomed and darkened, and the crowds thinned… as if a film had been placed over them, and the people raced and ran as flames consumed the new night, warping the street until the colors ran together and bled into one dull, monotonous grey.
Later… (near the end of the story, after a major battle scene)
Behind the city, like a crimson cog, the storm sun rose, its light sending spoke-like rays through the dark thunderheads, and basking the city in a bloody glow.
Note… that’s from the rough draft. I still need to go through and do edits.
There’s a lot of foreshadowing in The Little One for the entire Distant Horizon series. The Little One is a prequel, and the character has ‘insight,’ a power which lets her know more than she should, so it’s to be expected. Those scenes were a lot of fun to play with, and I wonder how different readers will read the various scenes…. especially depending on whether they read The Little One first or the other stories first.
Alternatively, let’s look at Magic’ Stealing. The antagonist has a lot of room for foreshadowing, but beta-readers have pointed out that the references seem odd and pulled them out from the story. There’s a reason those references seem odd, but I want the story to read smoothly, and as much as I don’t want to cut the references, I’m planning to do so (leaving the less obvious ones). Foreshadowing should serve the story, and in this case, beta-readers confirmed that I needed to try a lighter method.
I hope you enjoyed this post and found it helpful. What are your thoughts on foreshadowing? Have you read anything where the foreshadow did or didn’t work well? 🙂